Implicit Bias Spurs Gender Discrimination in STEM Fields

Despite Some Efforts STEM Careers Remain Male-Dominated

In the 21st century, many businesses and industries are taking steps to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). However, women remain severely underrepresented in STEM careers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently reported that while women hold about half of the jobs in the U.S., they fill only one-fourth of the nation’s STEM positions.

According to the American Association of University Women, many people perceive STEM careers as “masculine.” Between 1998 and 2010, more than 500,000 people around the world took a gender-science implicit bias test. Results indicated that 70 percent of those who took the test associated science careers with men and art careers with women, even if they did not know they held this bias.

Research indicates that women are less involved in STEM careers for several other reasons, particularly gender discrimination. The “masculine culture” commonly associated with and created in STEM fields is key to the gender discrimination many women in STEM fields experience. Studies show that the traditionally-masculine culture prevalent in America pressures women to pursue careers and degrees in non-STEM fields. Moreover, women who enter STEM fields often drop out due to gender discrimination or self-doubt stemming from unequal treatment. In fact, 20 percent of engineering graduates in the U.S. are women, but 40 percent of these women never enter the profession or ultimately drop out of the field.

Women become discouraged from pursuing STEM degrees at very early ages. For example, research cites the messages young girls receive from the kinds of toys marketed to them. Consider how arts and crafts sets are marketed versus chemistry experiment kits, for example. And these gendered messages continue as young women age. For instance, university-aged women in engineering classes report unequal treatment in group projects, like being demoted to perform secretarial jobs while the men in the group are delegated to the “real” work.

These negative messages continue beyond the education realm as female students compete for internships and summer jobs. Many collegiate women with STEM internships and jobs report sorting papers, making copies, collecting equipment, and writing notes while their male counterparts are assigned problem-solving tasks that promote their growth as engineers.

Women in STEM fields certainly face difficult obstacles, but students, school faculty from elementary to university level, and employers can take steps to create positive atmospheres that support women in STEM. Proactive steps include educating students and professors about the dangers of implicit bias and about how they can take action to counteract its effects by actively recruiting women to STEM majors, asking female students for feedback, and listening to and believing women who feel they are not receiving the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Challenging discrimination and encouraging women to study and pursue STEM-related careers is necessary: potential consequences of not doing so include a loss of bright minds, new perspectives, and ground-breaking discoveries in STEM.

[Sources: Harvard Business Review; American Association of University Women]