How do we increase women’s participation in STEM?



Women have been underrepresented in professions such as doctors, engineers, and mathematicians since such jobs came into existence. Throughout history, jobs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) have been associated with status and education, two qualities not often allocated to women in patriarchal societies. Since humans began combining into larger groups, “Different societies [have] adopt[ed] different kinds of imagined hierarchies… One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender…. and almost everywhere men have got the better deal” (Harari 144). If society believes one sex is stronger, smarter, or more important than the other, the logical course of action would be to give important professions such as doctors to the “better” sex. Additionally, if society believes the only objective of women in life is to have and take care of the children, there is no point in allocating resources for a woman’s education as she would never use it. Therefore, even if society allowed a woman to become a doctor, she would be challenged to gain the education to become one. These beliefs go straight to the root of patriarchy, and because almost every civilization was a patriarchy, women have always been underrepresented in STEM.

The United States was no exception to the patriarchal trend, as the country itself was established under the words, “all men are created equal.” Women were expected to take care of the home and children. Therefore, up until the start of the women’s suffrage movement in the late 1840’s, the entire scientific workforce was composed solely of men, with very few exceptions. A turning point for women entering more of the STEM workforce in the United States, was World War I and World War II, as positions previously occupied by men, opened up. At the same time the idea that women shouldn’t work after getting married, was decreasing in popularity (Ferry). These changes led to another demographic change in the scientific workforce. Progress was made, because women could become researchers, but fields like engineering were still reserved for men (Levins). Women like Edith Clark, an electrical engineer found it challenging to find engineering jobs, despite being the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree from MIT.

Full History Essay:

What is the root of the problem?

Underrepresentation of women in STEM is largely caused by women’s’ experiences at young ages. Children are greatly influenced during developmental years and can be negatively influenced by teacher bias and negative stereotypes. Thus, teachers, along with parents, can have a large influence on the educational outcomes for their female students. In a study published by the NY Times, beginning in 2002, researchers conducted a study on three groups of Israeli students in middle and high school.

Negative or bias messages can even come from toys girls are exposed to. Legos are a popular toy: however, there are two different types of legos, “Regular Legos” and “Girl Legos.” The labeling of these building toys implies that building toys are automatically meant for boys, and girls need special “legos.” In 1992, a talking Barbie Doll was created and cycled through a series of phrases like “party dresses are fun.” One of the phases was “Math class is tough,” meaning from an early age, girls were hearing messaging that math is hard for girls.

Parents and role models also have a huge impact on wether or not girls decide to pursue STEM. According to the New York Times, “daughters of working mothers [would go on to] earn 23 percent more than daughters of stay-at-home mothers.” Another piece of whether or not a girl decides to go into STEM is whether or not she sees women already in STEM. In the past there were limited female scientist role models that were widely recognized. Historically, even when a woman was successful in STEM, she was often not widely recognized. Today there are more women than ever being recognized for their work, The more women who become successful scientists, the more role models there will be.

Full Problem and Solution Essay:

A study was conducted a Yale, where professors were each given the same resume and told to indicate the rank they would give the person, and the salary they would give the person. Every resume was identical except for the name of the person.

How do we begin to tackle such a large issue?  

Humans are biased. Stereotypes and messaging will always affect our actions, therefore the best course of action is to minimize opportunities for those biases to affect outcomes such as grades. A small start would be for teachers to cover names while grading. Policies could also be implemented to conduct blind job and school applications. Blind auditions have already been used in orchestras, “As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s”(Rice). The increase is due to the practice of auditioning behind a screen, which means that the people hiring aren’t influenced by subconscious gender bias.

What can I do?

Encourage young girls to explore science or math by making it fun! Introduce them to educational TV shows or toys. Avoid discouragement, because the decision over whether or not they are good at STEM can be made very young.

What if I don’t know young girls?

You can still educate yourself – both on women in STEM and on unconscious gender bias! Grace Hopper, Chien-Shiung Wu, and Jennifer Doudna are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women in STEM. You can also do good by learning more about your own internalized gender bias. In the study at Yale mentioned above, women professors were just as likely to mark a Jennifer lower than John as their male colleges. Meaning we are all in overcoming gender bias together, and the more we understand, the more we can overcome.

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Marie Curie

Still Curious?


Mary Anning – Paleontologist
  • Born 1799 in Lyme Regis, United Kingdom
  • Known for finding fossils in marine fossil beds (Searched in the blue Lias cliffs on the English Channel around Lyme Regis)
  • Influential in proving extinction exists  
  • Discovered 2 skeletons of a new species called plesiosaur 
  • Discovered first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany  
  • Was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London
Mary Anning
Plesiosaur skeleton
Elizabeth Blackwell – Gynecologist
  • Accepted into Geneva Medical College – student body voted to accept her as a joke 
  • In 1849 graduated Geneva Medical College first in her class! 
  • Worked in Paris and London at maternity wards  
  • In 1857 opened New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and children. A learning facility for female medical students, that helped the poor get treatment  
  • During the Civil War helped train union nurses  
  • Was an advocated for better hygiene (hand-washing was not a common practice which helped disease spread) 
  • In 1868 founded London School of medicine for women 
Elizabeth Blackwell
Florence Bascom – Geologist

Florence Bascom - Wikipedia

  • Born 1862 in Massachusetts
  • First woman to get a phd at Johns Hopkins, but was forced to sit behind screen at Johns Hopkins to avoid “distracting her male colleges”
  • Second women to ever get a geology doctorate
  • Proved a layer of rock previously thought to be sedimentary was actually caused by lava flow 
  • First woman officer of Geologic Society of America  
  • Associate director of the American Geologist  
  • Received 4 stars in 1st edition of American Men of Science  
  • Published over 40 scientific papers  
  • Contributed to current knowledge of how mountains form   
Marie Curie – Chemist and Physicist
  • Born 1867 in Poland
  • Discovered two new elements: radium and polonium
  • Only woman to ever win TWO Nobel Prizes!
  • First woman to teach a Sorbonne University
  • One of the most famous scientists of her time!
Mary Agnes Chase – Botanist (and Suffragist)

“Grass made it possible for the human race to abandon cave life and follow herds.” – Mary Agnes Chase  

  • Born 1869 in Chicago
  • Discovered thousands of new species of grass, and discovered which grasses were best for livestock 
  • Collected 10,000 samples of grasses worldwide  
  • Honorary fellow at Smithsonian  
  • Got honorary degree from University of Illinois  
  • Wrote and illustrated The Structure of Grasses: Explained for Beginners  
  • Was illustrator for US department of Agriculture 
  • Participated in 1918 hunger strike, and was force fed through a tube in jail    
Mary Agnes Chase
Edith Clark – Electrical Engineer

“There is no demand for women engineers, as such there are for women doctors; but there’s always demand for anyone who can do a good piece of work.” – Edith Clarke  

  • Born 1883 in Maryland
  • 1919, becomes first woman to get a masters degree in electrical engineering from MIT  
  • Invented new graphing calculator
  • First woman to share her paper with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers  
  • Published 18 technical papers in 22 year  
  • Won society of women engineers achievement award (1954)
  • First female fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers   
  • In the National Inventors Hall of Fame  
  • First female prof in her field  
  • Helped design hydroelectric dams  
Edith Clarke
Lise Meitner – Nuclear Physicist
  • Born 1978 in Austria  
  • in 1907 moves to Berlin & worked with Otto Hahn
  • in 1938 moves to Stockholm, Sweden – to escape Nazis because she was Jewish
  • Work led to discovery of nuclear fission! (atomic nuclei can split in two). Otto Hahn’s experiments gave evidence for the existence of nuclear however Meitner & Otto Frisch (Meitner’s nephew) came up with theory of nuclear fission   
  • Hahn publishes theory without Meitner because she was Jewish and he was in Germany  
  • Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nobel prize in chemistry only goes to Hahn, not Meitner
Lise Meitner (on right)
Alice Ball – Chemist
  • Born 1892 in Seattle
  • At age 23 developed the Ball method  Isolated the ethyl esters in its fatty acids that could be blended with water for injection
  • Ball method was the only working treatment for leprosy until antibiotics (discovered in 1940s)  
Alice Ball
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – Astronomer
  • Born 1900 in England
  • Went to Cambridge, but there were not many opportunities for women, and they didn’t offer advanced degrees for women 
  • Started fellowship at Harvard were she was trying to discover what the sun and stars are made of (but received her PhD at Radcliff College)
  • Discovered sun in mostly hydrogen and helium  (sun was previously thought to be build like the earth)
  • 1956 became Harvard’s first female astronomy professor
  • Became chair of the astronomy department at Harvard  
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin
Rosalind Franklin – Physical Chemist
  • Born 1920 in London
  • In 1945 she graduated with doctorate in physical chemistry  
  • Spent 3 years in Paris learning x-ray diffraction techniques (the ability to determine the molecular structure of crystals)  
  • In 1951 she became a research associate working in John Randall’s laboratory at Kind’s College London  
  • Wilkins, another scientist studying the structure of DNA, meets Franklin
  • James Watson and Francis Crick, who were also studying structure of DNA, met with Wilkins where he shows Franklins photo (Photo 51)
  • With help of photo they can determine the structure of the DNA 
  • 1958 Franklin dies
  • 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine goes to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins NOT Franklin
Rosalind Franklin
Photo 51
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Astrologist
  • Born 1943 in Northern Ireland
  • In 1967, while she was a graduate student at Cambridge University, she discovered pulsars! (Pulsars are what remains of HUGE stars that went supernova) 
  • She discovered the recurring signals given off by their rotation while analyzing data printed on 3 miles of paper from a telescope she helped assemble
  • Unfortunately in 1974 the Nobel Prize for physics goes to Anthony Hewish (Bell Burnell’s supervisor)  
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Pulsar Diagram

“The picture people had at the time of the way that science was done was that there was a senior man—and it was always a man—who had under him a whole load of minions, junior staff, who weren’t expected to think, who were only expected to do as he said,” – Bell Burnell 

Thank you so much for reading my presentation! Please leave a comment! What did you enjoy? What could have been done differently? Do you agree with the action steps?

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  1. Hi Sophie,
    Your presentation is so informative! I previously knew a bit about discrimination against women in STEM, but you did a great job of summarizing the history, as well as outlining the current problem. I thought your visuals/statistics were particularly powerful (especially the Jennifer vs. John study) and I also agree very much with your action steps! Overall, amazing job!

  2. This is fascinating! I learned so much…This is a powerful presentation. Great job, Sophie!

  3. Sophie, such an interesting subject. Your graphics are appealing and clear to understand and go well with the text. Yes, when I was in college, the choice of careers was mainly nurse or teacher (1960). There were others of course but not many women pursued them. I loved my teaching job so it worked out well for me! You are on your way to making a good choice for yourself.

  4. Great paper Sophie, I love the infographics. You have succinctly summed up the problem. I started my engineering career in 1973 and at that time, the Engineering College at University of Michigan did not even have women’s restrooms in the building! I was one of 2 women in a class of 500. Almost 50 years later I am still working in the field of engineering and I have seen a lot of change in that time. I agree that many young women turn away from math and STEM careers in junior high school and that encouraging the study of math and science for girls early on is an important step.

  5. Sophie, this was a great overview and dive into this topic of women in STEM! You really showed your expertise in the subject through excellent info graphics and choice of evidence/analysis. As you pointed out this is a societal problem and it’s something that we all have to ponder consider and act on. I think this presentation was a great call to action and I look forward to hearing more about this topic from you as well as acting on those action steps together. Because the more women in STEM the better 🙂

  6. Great presentation! This presentation was excellent. The writer did a good job of stating the history and made a sound argument about the importance of childhood influences. Her presentation was clear and interesting. A great paper!

  7. Great presentation! This presentation was excellent. The writer did a good job of stating the history and made a sound argument about the importance of childhood influences. Her presentation was clear and interesting. A great paper!

  8. Hi Sophie, I loved your presentation! I have definitely noticed the underrepresentation of women in stem in my own community, so it was interesting to learn about the roots of that. I liked how you brought up examples like barbies and legos because that is something that influences kids at such a young age. Great job!

  9. Hi Sophie! I loved your presentation, it was both engaging and informative. I thought you did an amazing job of educating the ready and really laying out the root of this problem. Great job!!

  10. Sophie, this was great!! my best friend wants to go into the stem realm in college and her whole college essay is about how difficult it is to be a woman in stem!! i love this

  11. Hey Sophie, as a future STEM major, I LOVE this topic! I think it’s super important to motivate young girls to pursue their curiosities despite biases and stereotypes. The way you focused on both the historical and sociocultural causes of underrepresentation of women in STEM was super informative. To answer your question, I think including more about unconscious gender biases and how to confront them within yourself would have been a great addition!

  12. Hi Sophie! I am so impressed with your essay. You came up with so many well-thought ideas and solutions to problems that I have never thought of myself. I am so glad that you took such an important problem and were able to establish a solution. I love that you included the fact that us as a society need to educated ourselves in order to progress. Well-done!

  13. Sophie, this is so well-done! Thanks for providing succinct information towards a powerful argument. Representation matters! I appreciated your solution-focused sections and the research base. You speak the language of possibility. 🙂 Thank you!

  14. Amazing and insightful presentation in such a beautifully represented format! I’m well aware of the STEM disparity facts for women, however the way you presented it here starting with positive history of achievements and colorful facts made for a particularly impactful message. Nice done – you have talent! Dorothy (your mom’s friend)

  15. Sophie, great work on this presentation! It is both matter-of-fact on the historical reason for bias against women, and inspiring in your call to action! I think the part of your solution that identifies the role unintentional bias still plays in hiring and assessment considerations is important for everyone to know and address. Bravo!

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