When we discuss the involvement of women in fields like science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the data itself tells a story. The Department of Commerce reports that women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the United States, but hold 48 percent of all jobs in the labor market. In a randomized double-blind study from Montana State University, science faculty consistently ranked application materials from male students significantly higher than those from identical female students, regardless of quality. Even more starkly, the report noted how male STEM faculty members are far more likely to challenge research on gender bias than male faculty in other departments.
This evidence clearly points to a gender gap in STEM fields. It is therefore easy to feel as though the odds are stacked against women. But the best part of being a scientist and a feminist is that the analytical skills fostered through academic experience sharpen the tools to point out and pull apart gender biases in education and the workforce. Scientists need to be feminists — the innovation economy is on the line and our intellectual resources will be cut in half if we fail to motivate women to pursue research and careers in STEM.
Gender inequality in STEM fields does not simply appear at the higher education level. In fact, it is fostered long before any woman gets to college. The issue is not that girls lack interest in science: Instead, they are told that they should not be interested in science. Of course, a little girl’s fascination with nature or building structures with Legos is not discouraged from the get-go, but rather there comes a time when parents, teachers and the media tell the little girl that her interests are just hobbies. Just by watching TV shows and other programming, girls from a young age are encouraged to pursue non-STEM fields later on, as demonstrated by studies from the American Association of University Women and FEM Inc.
As high schoolers, we made up only a few girls in Advanced Placement classes on STEM subjects. We were used to boys grumbling whenever they were partnered with one of the girls. Though it was clear that every person in the class deserved to be there, my confidence wavered and I began doubting my abilities given how few girls were present as opposed to boys. However, solace could be found in connecting with the few other girls in the class, relying on each other for motivation and encouragement in the face of bias.
Our society has taught us that the lack of women in STEM fields is natural. We constantly assume that women are simply less interested in the fields than men, but this is not the case at all. By the time high school rolls around, many girls have removed themselves from STEM entirely. They discount their abilities based on societal norms that were adopted long before any of us were even born.
Upon entering Georgetown, thanks to our science curriculum, we were introduced to strong female role models and professors who have dedicated their lives to STEM. Yet the knowledge that STEM as a whole is male-dominated still weighed heavily on us.
At Georgetown, we joined a group, Stemme, that cultivates a community to encourage and challenge the next generation of women leaders in all fields of science. It also provides a space for women in all STEM fields on the Hilltop to come together to provide guidance and support for one another. Such a bottom-up community effort is one of the ways more women can continue pursuing our interests in STEM.
Yet the issue cannot be addressed only with more reports on the gender disparity, but rather with a widespread, cultural acknowledgement. When all individuals, men and women, can understand that the pursuit of all passions and industries is not limited to gender norms and scientists across the spectrum realize the value in gender equality that is currently lacking, then the numbers will change. If a culture of equality is accepted and welcomed by all, then the lack of women in STEM fields will not be an endemic problem of the future, but a footnote in the past.
Abby Beier is a senior in the College. Katie Ryan is a junior in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. They are board members on Stemme.