A Problem of Perception: The Gender Gap in STEM Fields


“The time is long overdue to encourage more women to dream the possible dream” – Sheryl Sandberg

Why I chose to research women in STEM:

The history of women in STEM:

The issue of women being excluded from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields can be traced back to the 17th century (Federici). This problem arose when a shift occurred that involved scientific experiments being carried out in labs/at work rather than in people’s homes. Because women were expected to tend to the home and children, they were not able to leave the house and were “deprived … of access to scientific observations” (Federici).

Over the course of American history, this issue has continued to grow. Women’s participation in the workforce has generally increased (especially during the feminist movement of the 1960s), but their participation in STEM fields has not kept pace (Burkett). For example, in 1960, women made up only 1% of engineers. This number rose to only 11% by the year 2000 (Hill). Statistics such as these are a direct result of damage caused by the initial lack of women in STEM (explained above).

This initial lack of women in STEM fields has created a never ending cycle that discourages women and girls from being involved in STEM. Because there were virtually no women in STEM fields to begin with, young girls don’t have many role models to look up to (Miller). Because there were so few successful women in STEM, the myth emerged that women were inherently less inclined toward STEM abilities (Hill). Due to women being seen as unfit for STEM career paths, there was less education for women in STEM. For example, it was not until 2004 when an accredited engineering degree was first offered by an all-women’s college (Smith College) (Smith College).

The women who do manage to overcome these barriers and start a career in STEM are often pushed away by gender stereotypes and concerns about entering a field as a minority. Although women have protested unequal treatment in STEM fields for centuries (Vongalis-Macrow), it is not until recently that the issue has truly been brought forth into the public eye. In recent years, awareness about women’s rights in general has been a prevalent topic in both political and daily discussions. Hundreds of studies have emerged bringing light to the issues of discrimination against women in STEM workplaces and college campuses.

There have been multiple efforts to fight against this dangerous cycle that excludes women from STEM, but the U.S still has a long way to go before women and men are granted equal opportunities.  

Barbara McClintock at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1951

The problem in the current day:

Today, the negative effects of a culture that deters women and girls from entering STEM fields can be seen in high school and college education as well as in the workplace. As early as high school, the gender gap in STEM fields is already apparent. For the past 50 years, boys have outscored girls by an average of 30 points on the math sections of the SAT (Perry). Some will interpret this as evidence that boys have more “STEM ability” than girls do, but that interpretation ignores the undercurrent of cultural bias that discourages girls from having the confidence to pursue STEM, even as early as high school (Perry).

Another manifestation of this gender gap can be seen in computer science/computer programming classes. For example, only 19% of students enrolled in high school AP computer science classes are female (National Girls Collaborative Project). Even my own high school is no exception to this trend. In my beginning level computer science class, I am one of only three girls (27%) in a class of 11 students. This disparity only grows at higher levels. In the next level of computer science at my school, there is one girl (6.25%) out of a class of 16 students. In all of the computer science classes at Head-Royce this school year, girls make up only 14.3% of students (11 girls out of 77 students) (Sea). Although computer science suffers the largest and most dramatic gender gap, these percentages are representative of STEM fields as a whole.

This gender gap continues at the college level. In 2015, women received only 23.1% of engineering PhD degrees (Yoder).

In the professional world, symptoms of this issue are evident. One clear example of this gender gap is in engineering, which is an industry with one of the smallest percentages of women. In such fields as chemical and industrial engineering, women hold less than 1/4 of the jobs (National Girls Collaborative Project).

Another symptom of the American culture detering females from STEM fields is that women and girls have reportedly less confidence in their abilities in STEM fields. This is something that plays a large factor in the lack of female participation in STEM (Gjersoe).

Call to Action:

In this Ted Talk, Jin Yang, a postdoctoral scholar at FSU
and a product development engineer in General Capacitor Int. LLC
speaks to the power of women in STEM.

Although good efforts have been made, they are not enough. Certain steps need to be taken on individual and societal levels to break the cycle and encourage more women to enter STEM fields.

On an individual level, parents need to be better educated about preserving their children’s opportunity to choose what they are interested in. By enrolling their daughters in sewing camps, and their sons in coding camps, parents are perpetuating the cycle.  Of course, women are free to choose what fields they enter in college or in their professional life despite what extracurriculars and summer programs they did as a child. However, by not enrolling young girls in STEM-based camps and extracurriculars, parents risk closing doors to valuable opportunities for young girls. Children who were enrolled in such activities are given a head start in the competitive and rigorous world of STEM, and as a result they are also given a confidence boost in STEM subjects. These children are usually male (MervisSep).

Schools should educate parents about STEM-related programs and extracurriculars that their daughters can become involved in. This would hopefully encourage parents to put their daughters in STEM activities in order to give them an opportunity to develop interests in STEM (and later enter STEM fields).

On a larger, societal scale, more all-girls STEM programs need to be created. These programs could take the form of clubs at schools, summer camps, classes, etc. This would give girls the opportunity to get experience in STEM and would encourage an interest in STEM subjects. When appropriate, these programs should be government-funded, because a shortage of women in STEM affects the entire American population (ex. more women in STEM would help the economy) (European Institute for Gender Equality).

Another societal change that needs to be made is that there needs to be more media that portrays girls and women in STEM. If social media, movies, and TV shows more often put the spotlight on successful women in STEM, girls would have stronger role models and would be encouraged to enter STEM fields. This could spark a shift in the mindset of every single one of us.

It’s time to change.


Thank you for reading!

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  1. April 28, 2019 by Patricia

    Great work, so interesting to learn about women in stem!

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