“I can’t believe I had to learn about these amazing and brilliant women from a movie! Why didn’t we learn about them in school?” lamented an African American friend and colleague. I felt the same way when I saw the movie Hidden Figures, a true story about the African American female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers who worked at NASA in the early days of the space program in the mid-twentieth century. They pushed against humiliations inside and outside their workplace, including racial segregation in their schools, dining rooms, bathrooms, and work spaces. They worked with lesser titles and large pay inequities to perform calculations of orbital trajectories and to solve engineering problems, making space travel possible.
Not long ago, a prominent neuroscientist noticed an announcement for an upcoming neuroscience conference. Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times reports that this scientist, Dr. Yael Niv of Princeton University, also noticed that “none of the twenty-one speakers were women.” She was upset because she had been pushing for greater inclusion of women scientists as speakers at conferences for years. To top it off, the organizers of this conference were women. This event pushed Dr. Niv and about twenty of her women colleagues to take stronger action to create change.
3 Reasons Why There are Fewer Women in STEM Professions: New Research Brings Hidden Barriers to Light
The fact that there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professions has been a mystery for a long time. A. Hope Jahren of the New York Times writes that according to the most recent statistics released by UNESCO, “women’s enrollment in graduate education in the United States has been greater than men’s for each of the last 30 years.” But every year, female students drop out of STEM graduate programs in large numbers and are denied tenure at high rates when they do complete their studies and move into faculty positions. Women are also poorly represented as senior STEM leaders. Jahren notes that women do not drop out of graduate programs because of performance—there is no difference in GPAs between women who drop out and those who stay in. And women are not denied tenure because of a failure to publish. So what is going on? Several new important studies reveal reasons why women struggle to be successful in the sciences and point the way to changes that will make it possible for them to succeed in the STEM professions.
Two recent stories about efforts to achieve gender equity provide encouragement about what’s possible and some useful lessons about how to get there. Here are the two cases, one from science and the other from technology.
Women have been underrepresented as speakers and presenters at scholarly meetings for many years, but one group, the American Society for Microbiology, found a way to achieve gender parity in three short years. Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of presentations by female scholars went from 25.9 percent to 48.5 percent—almost parity.
Why is it important that women scientists have equal visibility at professional meetings?
Why are there still so few women in the top levels of academic science despite equal numbers of women and men at the undergraduate and graduate levels? Let’s examine some myths and biases about women in the sciences and consider some facts that help explain the current situation. Then I’ll close with some good news!
Myths and Biases about Women in Science
In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Joan C. Williams and Jessi L. Smith note that there are distinct patterns of gender bias that affect female scientists: