Women in STEM fields



STEM is a shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and it refers to this career field as a whole. Like most career fields this one has long been dominated by men. But in recent years there has been increased visibility of people trying to get American women into STEM fields in larger numbers. This is understandable- currently more women graduate from college than men.

The STEM field has often had trouble getting women to become a part of it, not because they  lack ability or access to it, but because of the social and cultural ideas that surround it. From a young age, American girls are told that “girls aren’t good at math. women aren’t as good with money. Why would girls be interested in science?” One study says that when girls are reminded of their “femaleness” before a math test they score much more poorly. The stereotype of boys getting science kits and girls getting toy kitchens still rages on. So we miss the opportunity at a young age to get girls interested in STEM. What happens later on? When girls get into their teens they become concerned more with their social image and traditionally, STEM related classes and fields are not considered “cool”. (this may be changing in some places, but not as quickly or as widely as it should) And since it’s still a boys’ club, is no one saying “Ignore that it’s uncool, we still need you” girls continue to not pursue that path. Alright, so say that a woman makes it all the way through to an actual STEM major in college, what  happens then? A lot of unhappiness, says a recent study. The researchers looked into perceived social support for women within STEM fields and found that

undergraduate women in STEM majors often report feelings of isolation, intimidation, and even hostility from male peers as well as male professors, and they often have lower self-confidence in STEM domains than men, despite equal or even higher levels of achievement

This same study also found that when they discussed the gender identity of women in relation to their career that women would rather give up their “femaleness” in order to become more compatible with their career.  ”Women who perceive an incompatibility between their gender and STEM identity experience heightened stress, tend to doubt their ability to perform, develop negative achievement expectations, and indeed report lower performance, despite previous success in their area of study”

Researchers also say that  a lot of women are equally good at quantitative AND verbal areas, and end up having a wider variety of options career-wise. They end up not choosing STEM fields because they are perceived as less people oriented, male dominated, and not family friendly. People (both men and women) who are only proficient in quantitative areas tend to follow that straight into STEM fields. My own personal hypothesis is that the decrease of people who are good at both verbal AND quantitative areas in the STEM fields is going to keep being detrimental because those who are more verbal tend to be better communicators. If you can’t communicate well with people within your field and to the outside world, you’re really going to start having problems.

Speaking of problems… “The Big Bang Theory” is absolutely the worst.

The Big Bang Theory is a TV show on CBS that revolves around four male friends, Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Walowitz, and Raj Koothrapali,  who are scientists. Specifically they are physicists and engineers. The four characters live across the hallway from a girl named Penny who works at the Cheesecake Factory and is very pretty. The inciting incident of their friendship with Penny is when Leonard, the most socially savvy of the four, strikes up a conversation with her in the hallway. And nerdy shenanigans ensue. Along the way, Walowitz gets married to a Biologist named Bernedette and Sheldon starts dating Amy Farrah Fowler both of whom are very different from Penny.

The jokes in this show revolve around common stereotypes of nerd and STEM culture, as well as a lot of sexist stereotypes. This is a problem for many reasons but the biggest one is that they are perpetuating negative attitudes towards women, the STEM field, and doing nothing to fix the attitudes that already exist. It would take me hundreds more words to explain patriarchy’s real detrimental effect in STEM and nerd culture, so I will stick to the treatment of women in the show.

Amy Farrah Fowler and Bernedette are scientists, but their area of science is deemed as “soft” by the male scientists on the show (they are a Neurobiologist and a biologist, respectively). The women are stereotyped as either “robotic” like Amy or dorky and socially inept like Bernedette which is hardly true of the majority of female scientists. How is this helping women in the STEM fields? They are being mocked and caricatured. And no teenage girls watching the show are going to find that appealing. And of course the other female on the show is a stereotype- Penny the hot but ditzy blonde. They are constantly making jokes at all of these characters’ expense, it’s always about how Amy never acts like a girl and how Penny is just a banging body with too many feelings. This show leaves me with too much anger and too few answers. Why can’t the female scientists be babes with social skills? Why are their no female scientists of color on the show?  When are women in STEM fields and the career fields themselves going to stop being an endless punchline?

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