Why Are There So Few Women in STEM?

In an era where women are making strides in medicine, law, and business, there seems to be a shortage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM.) A 2010 research report by AAUW tried to figure out just that. The report presents eight key research findings like stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments at colleges and universities. It also includes statistics on girls’ and women’s achievements in STEM.

Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias: Barriers to Women in STEM

Stereotype threats arise in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. A young woman taking a math test could feel the extra emotional burden of the stereotype that women aren’t good at math. A reference to this stereotype, especially in a room full of men, could adversely affect how she does on the test.  When the burden is removed, however, she will most likely do better on the test. Stereotype threat is one way that AAUW research explains why women remain underrepresented in STEM.

An implicit bias goes right along with stereotype threat. Many people believe that they do not stereotype, but many do it unknowingly. This is implicit bias. These beliefs are more powerful than consciously thought values since we are not aware of them. It’s difficult to overcome these stereotypes because they are ingrained so hard into our minds.

Growth Mindset Benefits Girls

Individuals with a “fixed mindset” believe that intelligence is static. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” believe that intelligence can be developed. Because of this they want to learn more and, therefore, tend to embrace challenges, persist when they encounter obstacles, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and be inspired by the success of others.

Individuals with a fixed mindset are susceptible to a loss of confidence when they encounter challenges, because they believe that if they are truly “smart,” things will come easily to them. Individuals with a growth mindset, on the other hand, show a far greater belief in the power of effort, and in the face of difficulty, their confidence actually grows because they believe they are learning and getting smarter as a result of challenging themselves.


Get Girls Interested in Science and Engineering

  • Spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science.
  • Teach girls that intellectual skills, including spatial skills, are acquired.
  • Teach students about stereotype threat and promote a growth-mindset environment.
  • Talented and gifted programs should send the message that they value growth and learning.
  • Encourage children to develop their spatial skills.
  • Help girls recognize their career-relevant skills.
  • Encourage high school girls to take calculus, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering classes when available.
  • Make performance standards and expectations clear.

Create College Environments That Support Women in Science and Engineering

For Students

  • Actively recruit women into STEM majors.
  • Send an inclusive message about who makes a good science or engineering student.
  • Emphasize real-life applications in early STEM courses.
  • Teach professors about stereotype threat and the benefits of a growth mindset.
  • Make performance standards and expectations clear in STEM courses.
  • Take proactive steps to support women STEM majors.
  • Enforce Title IX in science, technology, engineering, and math.

For Faculty

  • Conduct departmental reviews to assess the climate for female faculty.
  • Ensure mentoring for all faculty.
  • Support faculty work-life balance with stop-tenure-clock policies and on-site child care.

Counteract Bias

  • Keep your biases in mind and take steps to correct them.
  • Raise awareness about bias against women in STEM fields.
  • Create clear criteria for success and transparency in the classroom and the workplace.

With these steps in mind, it is always important to encourage girls to do whatever they feel is best for them. Being an avid supporter of young women in STEM is a great help to young girls who may feel pressured by the “boys club.” Overall, if a young girl wants to get involved with STEM at any capacity, try to help her along her journey.

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