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The field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is one that is well-respected around the world. It has been around for longer than most people realize, but until recently, the focus has been on recruiting males – for reasons we’ll look at later. But, why have there historically been so few women in STEM, and what’s being done to address the status quo?

We’ll cover all this and more as we uncover how women in STEM are breaking barriers and redefining the STEM field.

What’s It Like Being A Girl in STEM?

STEM fields have traditionally been considered masculine, and girls have been systematically tracked away from sciences and math. Right from the beginning of public education, boys and girls learned different curricula.

Girls were taught subjects intended to make them desirable to prospective suitors and help them run households when they became wives and mothers. Subjects like poetry, music, sewing, basic math, and romance languages were the foundation for their learning. Being a STEM female would have been considered scandalous.

But it’s a new era, and education leaders have recognized that women in STEM are benefitting the world. A STEM female crushes stereotypes and forges exciting paths in business and research. Their educational achievements mean they have the opportunity to work in higher-paying jobs than their non-STEM peers.

What’s So Special About Women in STEM?

STEM girls are excited about learning, and they thrive when presented with challenges that demand excellent problem-solving skills. Women in science work as engineers, physicists, computer scientists, researchers, educators, and mathematicians.

Many women in science have overcome significant challenges to pursue STEM education. For starters, in the past, women couldn’t even be part of the educational system. And then, when they could, it was constructed that science, technology, engineering, and math were considered to be “male” fields. So, it took women to break down these barriers and fight for their seats in these classrooms so that girls in STEM today can learn without criticism. But despite societal advances, there is still a bias about girls studying STEM courses.

STEM Gender Gap

There is still a persistent systemic belief that women aren’t as capable as men in STEM fields. The STEM gender gap has meant some colleges and universities will favor male applicants over females. Women still only make up 28% of the STEM workforce and remain vastly underrepresented in post-secondary STEM courses. For example, the UN reports that only 5% of all mathematics and statistics students around the world are women. The gender gap that exists in education will then naturally follow women into the workforce as their education typically dictates what kind of roles they can obtain. This is part of the reason why just 3% of STEM industry CEOs are women.

Gender stereotypes remain the most significant obstacle for women in STEM. Long before college, a girl will experience a huge gender gap in education. And the gap widens further for girls who come from marginalized sections of society.

Other barriers to a successful STEM education include:

Math Anxiety

Elementary and high school teachers are likely to be women. Female teachers commonly have math anxiety, which they pass on to their students. A research paper titled “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement” highlights that children are likely to mimic the behavior of those who teach them, and do even more so when their teacher is the same gender as them. Since most early elementary school teachers are women, girls are more likely to pick up on these sentiments and follow suit. Losing confidence in math abilities presents a significant hardship to completing future STEM courses.

Lack of Mentorship

Because STEM is still predominantly male-oriented, there are few female faculty members at colleges and universities. Yale Scientific reports that women make up about 34.5% of STEM faculty in academia. Because of this, many STEM females feel there are fewer opportunities for being mentored.

This is unfortunate because mentors play crucial roles for women in STEM. They help students navigate college life, guide networking, and assist graduates in entering the workforce. The lack of female mentors negatively affects young women pursuing STEM studies and careers.

Exclusionary Policies

Schools and employers have policies meant to prevent visible discrimination. However, other policies are discriminatory, policies that are invisible. For example, a company may claim that they will hire a STEM female but have a policy in place that doesn’t allow for parental leave. This historically has been a greater problem for women than men.

Why Women in STEM Matter

Equal opportunities matter. When women are welcomed and working in STEM fields, they narrow the pay gaps. Women in STEM have high-paying careers that enable them to enjoy economic security. Financial stability plays a key role in good health and high quality of life.

The presence of women in science working in STEM careers creates a rich, diverse and talented workforce. STEM females help to crush the biases that are born when there is a lack of diversity in the workplace.

Famous Women in STEM in the Recent Times

There are countless examples of famous women in STEM who have made vital contributions to the world. They were and are trailblazing inspirations for girls who are striving to follow in their footsteps.

Let’s take a look at a few of these remarkable women in science. They’ve been recognized for their STEM contributions and received the Nobel Prize as such.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna 

In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna jointly received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a method for genome editing. In 2012, they created a tool that could cut DNA at a predetermined site. This finding can impact the fight against diseases.

Elizabeth Blackburn 

Born in Tasmania, Elizabeth Blackburn was interested in nature from an early age. She went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her discovery about how chromosomes in DNA are protected by an enzyme called telomerase.

Frances H. Arnold 

In 2018, Frances H. Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as she discovered what proteins catalyze chemical reactions. This pivotal finding has been applied to create more environmentally-friendly manufacturing of chemical substances.

Final Thoughts

While the number of women in STEM continues to increase, more work needs to be done to get girls on early STEM tracks. Being a STEM female opens up countless educational and career opportunities.

STEM, and the women who work in it, will continue to change the world.

University of the People