Calling more women for STEM

Snehal Choudhury, Staff Writer

I remember my professor once telling my class about a female scientist who made a major scientific breakthrough. Notably, she was one of the only women to be acknowledged for her contributions. Remarking on the lack of female representation in STEM, my professor tried to encourage the women in the room—myself included—to recognize our potential in STEM and make strides to pursue it.

While his words were empowering, it made me think about the poor state of female representation in STEM today. It’s important to note that there was a time in history when women couldn’t even participate in education. However, even though many women have broken barriers in the world of STEM and our society’s attitude is shifting, the change is not fast enough. Many women still face societal hurdles and repercussions due to this egregious gender gap.

There are those who claim there’s been significant progress in closing the gender gap, and this is true to an extent. At the undergraduate level, women make up a large proportion of biological and social science degrees, but are sorely underrepresented in engineering and computer science, receiving under 20% of those degrees. In the workplace, this disparity continues. As of 2022, women make up just 34% of the STEM workforce, with even more dismal representation in engineering (15%) and math / computer sciences (26%). Many face policies that disproportionately hinder their ability to work. And for minority women, especially Black, Indigenous and Hispanic women, and those with disabilities, this gap is further exacerbated.

I won’t continue boring you with the many statistics about this issue because we’ve heard them all before. I want to take this idea a step further.

This gender gap is an indication of the persistent systemic belief that women aren’t as capable in STEM and therefore don’t belong there. There are many people who don’t believe in this harmful idea at all. But for every person who wants to lift up women in STEM, there are many more who cling onto this outdated belief whether they realize it or not.

Even though this idea may not always be explicitly stated, it’s an invisible force that pervades everywhere—academia, the classroom and even the workplace.

There are some reasons why this is problematic. Many times, the contributions of women to STEM aren’t recognized. This leads to only a few role models for young girls to look up to. This is more true for women of color. A few role models can push young women away from the STEM field, creating a vicious cycle. Simply put, minimal recognition and representation perpetuates the idea that women can’t do STEM.

Even for the few women who do stay, they become more vulnerable to harassment and stigma. Because of this belief, it compels others to hold women to a higher level of scrutiny in order to prove themselves. Consequently, their identity is prioritized over their potential as a STEM professional. As many students will tell you, it’s already hard enough to choose and finish a STEM degree without dropping out. Facing this added scrutiny is exhausting and only discourages women from studying STEM subjects. 

And honestly, it’s ridiculous people are still contending with the idea of women being in STEM. We live in a world faced with major challenges like climate change and sustainable energy, and desperately need innovation and problem-solving in the STEM field. Through the power of diversity—that is,  empowering more women to lead and participate in these discussions—we improve our ability to make new discoveries and problem-solve.

I know “diversity” is a tired buzzword. But if we improve diversity in STEM, we then listen to a greater variety of perspectives. With these perspectives we can address problems in a more thorough, nuanced way to come up with the best solutions for everyone.

Now, I recognize that society’s attitude towards women in STEM will not change overnight. But there are little things we can consciously do to combat the stigma. For one, too many girls and young women are socialized into thinking that they’re not smart enough for STEM by the people around them. While some people genuinely aren’t interested in pursuing these fields, many are shut down before trying.

As my mom has always told me, “Do what you want because you like it, not because of things like your gender.” If we want to change, everybody needs to believe in and encourage this idea, especially when it comes to supporting women who want to pursue STEM.

We must start by normalizing the idea of women in STEM in our daily lives. One way is to recognize those already contributing to the field. While there have been attempts by the media to showcase women in STEM, like in the 2016 biographical film “Hidden Figures,” we need to keep doing that. In the household and classroom, we need to tell girls and young women that STEM is an option, especially in fields like engineering. This way, we can nurture more women to confidently pursue STEM so they can in turn inspire countless generations to do so too. 

As an engineering major, this disparity only motivates me to stay and pave the way for the next generation of women in STEM.