Women in STEM: Breaking the Bias

STEM is often viewed as an exclusionary and male-dominated field. It has been called a ‘gatekept’ discipline where the representation of women has changed unevenly over the past several decades. The gender gap not only reflects the unfair conditions and poor treatment of female contributors to the field but also reduces and affects the quality and scale of innovation and advancement. Young girls and women are held back by biases, expectations or social norms which affect their education and careers. Today, while the world has made significant progress towards bridging the gap, many challenges remain and we still have a long way to go.

Women have significantly contributed to the field of STEM throughout history. However, it is still difficult for a person to name even five female scientists or inventors and talk about their foundations. Did you know that Ada Lovelace invented the Analytical Engine and that her algorithm to calculate the Bernoulli Numbers via the same is regarded as the world’s first computer program? The double helix formation of human DNA was discovered by Rosalind Franklin, even though the credit along with the Nobel Prize for the revelation was awarded to Crick and Watson. Have you ever wondered what stars are made of? Cecilia Payne discovered the answer to the question and changed the view scientists had of the universe. Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood legend during World War II, worked on the concept of ‘frequency hopping’ to prevent military radios from being bugged. Disregarded by the US Navy at the time, her theory later laid the foundation for the development of new-age technologies including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Today, the world is in a state of constant calamity due to global warming, but who understood the physics behind it and when? Eunice Foote theorized as well as demonstrated the greenhouse effects first in 1856, three years before John Tyndall was credited for the same remarkable discovery in climate science. There are people who dismiss even Marie Curie- the two-time Nobel Prize winner for her pioneering research on radioactivity- and cast her husband as the real genius behind her breakthroughs. These courageous women are amongst millions of those whose achievements have been overlooked, forgotten or uncredited.

The Matilda Effect is a well-known phenomenon that acknowledges the work and achievements of those female scientists whose contributions have been attributed to their male colleagues. The irony remains that the term was coined after Matilda Gage, whose own work was overlooked by society and historians. The history books in science are filled with the accomplishments of men. And women? They can be read about with a looking glass in hand- they’re present in the footnotes of their own theories which have been published by men who are now iconized. Women were forced to take a back seat as men capitalized on their ideas and falsified their names on records. Women scientists were written out of history.

Unlike many other career fields such as education, media, social work, etc, young girls don’t generally see examples of female scientists or engineers. Moreover, their representation in books and pop culture is often limited or biased. The strong gender stereotypes discourage girls from studying scientific subjects. However, even education does not always translate into jobs for women. Many choose the field of STEM but opt out later. Some don’t necessarily have the worry of securing a job, but of being accepted at the workplace. Studies have shown that STEM professions with more women, such as sociology or biomedical sciences, are frequently dismissed as ‘soft sciences,’ while computer science and mechanical engineering are attributed to be ‘hard sciences.’ This has a tangible impact, as it shapes the perception that jobs performed by women require less rigour and may not be very credible.

Companies need to acknowledge the deep-seated biases and preferential environments which still exist when it comes to employee evaluations. Many case studies and social experiments conducted on the blind hiring process, which serves the purpose of eliminating bias from screening during recruitment, have shown that women are strong candidates and often more capable of performing the job and likely to be fitting into the role based on their prior experience and general work ethic as compared to their male counterparts.

The internet is awash with statistical figures outlining the gender imbalance in STEM. The biggest barrier is under-representation itself- which is also the root cause for umpteen obstacles that eventuate on larger scales. Because there aren’t many women in the sector, to begin with, there’s a looming fear of not fitting in, making the work culture uncomfortable and confining. There’s a constant worry of being left out, especially when speaking goes unheard and contributions go unappreciated. Lack of equitable compensation and dismissal of work-life integration make it harder for many to continue. Even though STEM careers produce some of the highest paying jobs in the world, there is a big gap in pay due to gender disparity, and it works as an equally big hurdle when it comes to female employee retention. Women are subjected to harassment and gender-devaluing at their workplace because of the male-dominated nature of the field. Actions are taken when issues are addressed, and issues are addressed when voices are heard. However, many a times, these voices get lost as they echo in their own chambers of dismay without any outlet to let out the distress.

How do we bridge the gap?

  • Identify communities that cater to the cause and work with them to strengthen female representation in STEM.

  • Provide girls with more resources and educational opportunities that help them build confidence and envision themselves as changemakers of tomorrow.

  • Recognize strong and visible role models of women in science, technology and math fields and value their contributions.

  • Make STEM more welcoming for women by modifying the curriculum, changing age-old practices and overcoming biases.

  • Strive towards equal pay for the same work, provide better childcare options and allow for flexible work hours with a better work-life balance.

  • Sponsor mentorship programs and exclusive leadership training opportunities that are tailored to the needs of women employees and focus on the unique challenges they face in their professional lives.

  • The community should be made responsible, accountable and transparent so as to prevent any form of harassment while providing a hospitable environment to the employees for raising their concerns and voicing their opinions.

As STEM is known to be a field that drives innovation for the future and paves way for inclusive growth, social wellbeing, and sustainable developments, the gender disparity within it is cause for alarm. Science functions best when it incorporates different perspectives and becomes inclusive of all whom it impacts. Girls need more role models of women inventors and scientists to inspire their interest in the field. While STEM is challenging, it is equally rewarding. Participation of women employees should be recognized and seen as more than simply a slogan for gender equality. It is imperative that we recognize the valuable roles women have to play in creating new possibilities for the success and advancement of this pioneering world.

-Anushka Bhatnagar


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