Women in STEM: fixing the leaky pipeline

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The lack of women in STEM is a complex problem, including a loss of girls and women at all levels of a research career – a phenomenon often referred to as the “leaky pipeline” of STEM. Let’s look at why some of these leaks have formed and what we can do to fix them!

By Amy LeBlanc

So, what is the issue for women in STEM? First an introduction to the acronym: STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; fields in which women are currently woefully underrepresented.

There is of course an underlying historic basis for the absence of women in these fields: women were (and in some parts of the world, still are) traditionally encouraged to take on the roles of childrearing and household management and actively discouraged from pursuing any form of professional career.

This pattern of stay-at-home mothers has, to everyone’s benefit, been decreasing steadily through the 20th and 21st centuries. We also know that, despite historic neurosexism in psychiatry, women and men’s brains have very few differences; we are born equals when it comes to STEM-related aptitudes. So why does the gender disparity in STEM linger?

Why the leaky pipe?

The challenges facing girls and women interested in STEM are many and complex. From an early age, societal stereotypes and cultural beliefs work constantly to undermine a girl’s passion for STEM subjects, by undermining her faith in her own capacity to pursue them.

Analyses of children’s academic performance have shown that girls perform as well as, if not better than, boys in school subjects (including mathematics). Yet girls as young as six years old are already more likely to associate words like “smart” with boys rather than with their own gender. This false stereotype about differences in intellectual ability leads girls to self-select out of activities and pursuits they, already at this tender age, see as a “man’s domain”. The STEM pipeline has sprung its first leak.

“Girls as young as six years old are already more likely to associate words like “smart” with boys rather than with their own gender.”

By the time women graduate from high school and start to enter undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM, the continuous abandonment of scientific pursuits has begun to show. Overall, the female workforce of most countries is less than a third, and for some fields, such as engineering or computer sciences, the numbers are far lower than that. Furthermore, these numbers don’t convey the continued drop-off of female scientists at higher professional tiers. In reality, the proportion of female PhD graduates is above 30%, but the proportion of female faculty staff is much lower.

A recent Nature publication gives us a good example of one of these major “leaks” along the way. The study found that nearly half of women in STEM in the US leave full-time science after they have their first child, compared to about 20% of men. Clearly, academia isn’t family friendly, but this is disproportionately affecting female employees. Adding insult to injury, those women who do stay in academia and make it into tenured positions have to work harder than their male colleagues for the same amount of recognition.

Why should we care?

This may seem intuitive to a lot of people, but I feel that it’s worthwhile to discuss: why is it important to have an even gender balance in STEM? After all, one might argue that if it’s so hard for a woman to achieve success in a STEM career, perhaps she’d be better off pursuing another profession?

Archaic sexism aside, there are several measurable and concrete reasons that increasing the representation of women in STEM is not only beneficial but absolutely necessary. Firstly, a larger talent pool improves the overall quality of the STEM workforce. Diversity in this workforce also brings new perspectives, which is vital when it comes to innovation and development. Secondly, women’s involvement in STEM is good for business: studies conducted by multiple financial institutions have found that companies employing more women consistently outperform their competitors.

“The lack of women’s perspective in STEM is not only damaging to progress and innovation: it is deadly.”

More importantly though, diversity in STEM is a matter of life or death. Women’s healthcare lags notoriously far behind that of men, with women constantly misdiagnosed, given inadequate prescriptions, or simply shortchanged when it comes to good healthcare options. Serious and common issues in women’s health have a hard time gaining attention in a male-dominated medical community.

Apart from a lack of female perspective, these shortcomings are caused by the assumption that the male body is somehow the “standard” human form. Not only are rodents used in drug development almost always male, there is also a severe underrepresentation of women in clinical trials. This despite the fact that women are physiologically quite different from men and often require different drugs and dosages.  It’s no wonder that human healthcare has become heavily skewed in favor of one half of the population. The lack of women’s perspective in STEM is not only damaging to progress and innovation: it is deadly.

Fixing the pipeline

We’ve covered the challenges facing women in STEM: its causes and why it’s a serious problem. But what can we, as everyday mortals, do to eliminate the issue?

We can start at the root of the problem, with the gender stereotypes that are having such a negative influence on girls. If we encourage children to combat stereotypes and make them understand that intelligent pursuits are not just for boys, we will already be well on our way to halting the first and most dramatic of the pipeline leaks. We need to support our girls: call them smart as well as pretty; give them Lego as well as dolls. Not every girl will be interested in science, but those who are should be encouraged, not deterred!

The lack of women role models is also a large contributing factor for women, both young and grown, giving up on their pursuit of a STEM career. When there is a lack of examples, it is harder for a young girl or woman to imagine herself in a future position, such as that of a researcher, professor or CEO. A young girl today, looking for examples of people working in STEM, will have relatively few people to identify with. To overcome this, we need to provide examples and increase visibility for the women who have already made it into a STEM career. Luckily, there are already quite a few examples of programs trying to do just this: a lot of major universities have divisions dedicated to promoting their women faculty members and independent initiatives have popped up all around the world (eg. internationally, in the UK, US, Australia and Belgium).

Finally, we need to look into reforming academic working conditions. Change here may come in many different shapes and sizes: from pay equity to better hiring practices; from management training on gender issues, to leadership workshops and active mentorship. We also need to do better when it comes to supporting new mothers (and fathers), so that the return to a STEM position doesn’t become a Sisyphean task.

“Men and women can work together to eliminate the obstacles obstructing the career trajectory of women in STEM.”

It isn’t only hard for a woman to initiate a STEM career, but also to stick with it through the many gender-specific hurdles she will have to face. Women in STEM often feel stuck in their current job positions, without any support or encouragement towards upward mobility. It is no surprise that women leave their science careers at increasing rates as time goes on; they get worn down from all the obstacles they’ve had to face.

The good news is: these hurdles are not insurmountable. Men and women can work together to eliminate the obstacles obstructing the career trajectory of women in STEM. As the classic feminist poster proclaims: WE CAN DO IT! Together, we can fix the leaking STEM pipeline once and for all!