Imagine a world where people tell you that you aren’t worthy. They tell you to do work that you don’t want to do. They tell you your dreams are too big. They tell you that you aren’t smart enough. They tell you others are better suited to take care of certain jobs. They instill fear, threaten you, or just make you feel bad. Imagine being harassed for just existing in certain spaces. Imagine wanting to do something, but having to wonder if you’ll be accepted because you have never seen anyone who looks like you do it before.
Oh wait. For 50% of the population, you probably don’t have to imagine that. You already have to live that life. Actually, for more than 50%. But this is true for at least 50% due to their gender identity. People who identify as women tend to face these barriers listed above.
Not so shocking. Yet, it needs to be said. And it continues to be needing to be said until it is adequately addressed. Why am I saying it right now? Because, although this happens in life generally for women, this especially still happens for women trying to pursue STEM careers.
Does this general statement hold true for you (at least at some level, even though it may eventually go away or you work through it): Do you feel like you are unable to be a part of something because your identity doesn’t align with the direction you want to go?
Example 1: If you want to get your college degree, but you are 60 years old, does your identity as an older person, get in the way of pursuing a degree?
Example 2: If you consider yourself a scientist, does that ever hold you back from engaging in pseudoscientific hobbies?
Example 3: If you are male-identifying, does that get in the way of expressing emotions?
Example 4: If you are a caregiver, does that stop you from taking care of yourself or enjoying your own life?
Example 5: Do you ever see a group of people having fun in some way, want to join, but hold back because you feel like you don’t belong with them or it is out of character for you?
There are many ways in which our identities stop us from pursuing other opportunities in life.
So, what happens? Well, when we don’t identify with a group that has certain characteristics, we find it harder to engage in behaviors that align with those groups. Not impossible. But harder for sure.
This is no different for STEM careers and the path to get there. With a lack of representation and support from others, the education system, and society in general, it can be hard for people who don’t identify in groups that are associated with STEM to feel like they fit in. In this case, women find it harder to stay motivated given the barriers to pursuing STEM careers.
Here are some findings across 47 studies looking at this issue:
1. Women feel like they can’t be both a woman and in STEM. Gender-neutral women are more likely to be viewed as more successful (regardless of their actual success).
2. When peers support a woman’s choice to be in STEM, they are more likely to do it.
3. Support from mixed-gendered peers is more valuable than only from other women.
4. Women may do just as well as men (e.g., have the same grades), but still feel like they are worse than men, likely because they don’t see women in these positions and think they need to be extra special in order to attain a STEM career.
5. Parental support is needed as well. The education system can help teach parents how to better support their daughters to achieve their dreams.
6. White boys in particular seem to hold stereotypes against women and need to be taught otherwise.
7. Women who are already interested in STEM likely need to be approached different in support compared to women who are not yet interested in STEM.
8. If you want to show women as role models, great. But, make sure that they are currently in a position to talk about their experiences and help inform other interested women. For example, if you want women engineers to come to an event, don’t bring former women engineers that have moved onto different careers. (This seems oddly specific, but it happened, and it is worth warning against because it ends up demotivating women)
9. Affirmations about ability help racial and ethnic minority students, as long as they are in AP/IB classes.
10. Sometimes stereotypes can…help? There are times where, if you make a stereotype salient (e.g., that women don’t do as well as men in math), then women will perform even better to disprove the stereotype. Note: Don’t do this please.
11. Starting earlier is better. 5th graders that were exposed to STEM content were more likely to choose STEM classes in middle and high school compared to 5th graders that were not exposed to STEM content.
12. People generally don’t want to be special, the first, the only, etc. Instead, make STEM trajectories more normalized rather than anything else.
One thing I want to make sure I really very clearly state is, just because women tend to not be in STEM as much as men, doesn’t mean that they are not capable. It doesn’t mean men are actually better or more deserving. It really only means that the opportunities have not been as present.
If we can live in world of opportunity for all rather than some, I imagine the numbers of men and women in STEM would even out quite a bit. They already are evening out with the progress that has been made in society so far.
There is more work to be done.
Citation: Kim, A. Y., Sinatra, G. M., & Seyranian, V. (2018). Developing a STEM identity among young women: A social identity perspective. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 589-625. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654318779957