Addressing STEM's Gender Imbalance

What can we do to change gender stereotypes—in industries and society at large?

Posted Mar 08, 2019

Historically, men and women have occupied different spheres in society; men have traditionally dominated the work sphere, while women were long relegated to the home sphere.

Although the workplace is now populated by both men and women, our society still reflects the vestiges of this cultural heritage: Women make up the majority of workers in occupations that are associated with their historical role of caregiver (e.g., nurses), while men in the labor market continue to disproportionately occupy higher status and higher paid positions.

This gender imbalance is particularly pronounced in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. According to a 2018 report by the National Science Foundation, women account for only 28 percent of the labor force in these sectors—even though they earn about half of all STEM degrees. In particular, the percentage of female STEM workers continues to be lowest in engineering, where women represent only 15 percent of the workforce.

Studies show that the underrepresentation of women in STEM can be attributed to the presence of both explicit and implicit beliefs about gender. Explicit beliefs reflect conscious and controllable evaluations; they're typically measured with self-reported scales (e.g., questionnaires). Implicit beliefs are thought to reflect automatic evaluations that occur outside of someone's awareness and control; these are usually assessed using indirect measures, such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

One experimental double-blind study demonstrated that, on certain academic faculties, the decision to select a male rather than a female student for a laboratory manager position (as well as offer him a higher starting salary and more mentoring time) was associated with the belief that women are less competent than men. Similarly, an experimental study showed that male candidates were twice as likely to be hired to perform an arithmetic task than female candidates. In the same study, they were also believed to be more suitable than women to scientific disciplines. These results are in line with recent research reporting that women are specifically underrepresented in disciplines that are thought to require "innate talent”—such as mathematics—because they are explicitly considered to lack natural aptitude.

In addition, it has been shown that gender beliefs can influence an individual's performance—potentially impacting their career path and subsequent life decisions. One international study, collecting data across 34 countries for 8 years, showed that on the Trends International Mathematics and Science Study (TMSS), the performance of male and female 8th graders was correlated with beliefs that men are more adept at science than women. That is, in nations that adhere more strongly to stereotypes associating scientific aptitude with gender, boys and girls demonstrated more significant disparities in their TMSS scores.

What can we do to change these deeply ingrained beliefs and reduce their contribution to the gender imbalance in STEM?

1. Awareness

Awareness represents the first step toward societal equality between women and men. By being aware that gender stereotypes exists—as well as how they operate and how they can influence our behavior—we can act more mindfully and promote equal opportunity and fairness.

2. Desire for change

Reducing gender imbalances requires a desire for change. Society cannot change if its members have no desire to do the work.

The major symphony orchestras in the United States represent a significant example of how the desire to change can lead to reduced gender disparity in specific fields. For decades, the majority of musicians in America’s symphony orchestras were men; women accounted for only 10 percent of members. This imbalance between men and women motivated several orchestras to adopt blind auditions, in which judges select instrumentalists only by ear. This simple modification significantly increased the proportion of women in symphony orchestras.

3. Research

A crucial instrument for producing changes in gender beliefs is scientific research. Over the last two decades, social scientists have focused on creating interventions and strategies to reduce harmful beliefs about gender. For example, it has been shown that exposure to successful women, such as female faculty, can reduce the belief in female college students that men are more closely associated with leadership positions and the scientific disciplines than are women. Similarly, researchers at the University of Colorado showed stereotypes portraying women as weak could be decreased by asking people to imagine strong women's personalities and actions.

Interestingly, recent research demonstrates that social beliefs can be shifted by directly interfering with the brain areas that are involved in producing and maintaining them. In particular, it has been shown that using noninvasive brain stimulation (NBS), a procedure that allows researchers to produce changes in neural activity by inducing magnetic pulses or a low-intensity current in the brain, may decrease the gender-science stereotype.

Reducing gender stereotypes in STEM is not only crucial for the development of a more democratic society; it's also necessary for both economic growth and national innovation. Only by focusing on the talent of their citizens—and not on their unrelated characteristics, such as gender—can we increase productivity, well-being, and scientific progress in society as a whole.


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