Why women are underrepresented in STEM

New study takes a deep look into the reasons women are more represented in some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields than others. The findings are somewhat unsurprising, pointing at the presence of a ‘dominant masculine culture’ as the most influencing factor.

Study shows why women are more represented in some STEM fields than others (credit: Shutterstock)

Study shows why women are more represented in some STEM fields than others (credit: Shutterstock)

The research, published last week in the journal Psychological Bulletin, was conducted at the University of Washington and looked at the disparity in gender distribution in STEM fields. The researchers focused on six science and engineering areas showing that while biology, chemistry and math have the highest proportions of female participation, computer science, engineering and physics lead the way in terms of gender gaps, with women being far behind. For instance, women receive 40% of undergraduate degrees in math, but only 18% in computer science.

The researchers analysed over 1,200 papers about women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields and isolated the 10 major factors determining the gender differences. Out of these, 3 factors were highlighted as being the main drivers: i) the lack of pre-college experience, ii) the biased belief in one’s ability and iii) the dominant masculine culture that discourages women from participating.

Singling out the causes of gender unbalance is a complex problem. For instance, a lack of pre-college experience cannot account, by itself, for women underrepresentation in certain STEM subjects. The fact that courses in computer science, engineering and physics are offered and required less than biology, chemistry and math in U.S. high schools is true for each sex and should therefore act indiscriminately across genders. However, when accompanied by a dominant masculine culture, the lack of early experience suddenly seems to skew the gender proportion in favour of men. Early learning opportunities in STEM seem to attract women, if it is perceived that they belong to those fields as much as men do. “If we’re not providing students with a welcoming culture, these efforts are not likely to succeed,” said lead author of the study Sapna Cheryan, Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

Interestingly, belief in one’s ability has often been identified as a main cause of the gender-bias, and it certainly is co-responsible for some of the women vs men inequalities. However, the study shows that it might not be the most relevant. For instance, girls tend to report less confidence in their math abilities than boys and yet math is amongst the most gender-balanced areas in STEM. Similarly, gender discrimination in hiring does not correlate with the gender unbalance, as discrimination against women exists and it is applied equally across all the six disciplines of STEM investigated by the study.

Something this study did quite well was to look at men’s behaviour as well as the women’s one, as men’s choices – it turns out – do influence women’s decision to pursue the study of certain subjects. “When we drilled down into the numbers, we realized that if we just looked at women, that wouldn’t tell the whole story,” Cheryan said. “Underrepresentation is shaped just as much by what men are doing as by what women are doing.” For example, the relative number of women receiving computer science degrees has declined steadily since the mid-1980s, most likely due to an influx of men in the field rather than a drop in women’s interest in the area. Cultural historians attributed the trend to the advent of the personal computer and the associated stereotype of the nerdy male ‘computer wizard’.

The researchers conclude that to reach gender equality we need to develop a ‘subculture’ that makes women feel that ‘they belong’, either via creating a more welcoming environment and/or fighting the negative stereotypes around women’s ability in specific areas. “Cultural change is never easy, but there are lots of examples of it being done successfully, and it translates into changing who’s in a particular field,” Cheryan concluded.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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