During a conversation a few weeks ago someone said that the obvious push by various organizations to get girls interested in male-dominated stem fields, such as engineering or technology, may be misguided. Their argument was centered on the idea that we are forcing girls into roles they are not naturally inclined to take. This was not a popular argument among those of us who are demonstrating girls can in fact be interested in such careers. The argument lacked qualifying details to state the case accurately, thus I wanted to know if there was any merit behind such a statement and not simply disregard it as nonsense. Why would anyone think that women would not be naturally driven to these fields of work?
I went on a search for information about the number of women involved in STEM careers and found a very interesting 2015 article posted by a columnist in PBS.org. The title of the article is “Why the STEM gender gap is overblown”, by Denise Cummins. The article pulled statistics from the National Science Foundation dispelling the notion that men outnumber women in STEM fields. Women appear to have achieved or are close to achieving equity in the biosciences and social sciences fields. The only fields in which men greatly outnumber women are computer science and engineering. Ms. Cummins further explains that this trend is explained by women’s innate preference to focus on living things. This appears to not be a product of social attitudes or beliefs, as girls show their preferences long before they are exposed to any gender biases in their social context.
Further research into the statistics put out by the National Science Foundation appears to corroborate Ms. Cummins conclusions. Women seem to gravitate more to careers such as Psychology, Medicine, Social Sciences, etc. and less towards engineering or technology fields. However, while it may be true that more women prefer psychology to engineering, it does not mean that they are not naturally inclined to take a traditionally male-dominated role. Many factors may hinder a woman from pursuing a career in the STEM fields of engineering and technology, pushing them into female-friendly careers instead. Those factors include lack of support from their social circle, unfairness in their work environment, perceptions of incompetence compared to their male counterparts, inequitable pay, etc. Thus, it is really not entirely due to our natural tendencies but also societal pressures that push women away from these male-dominated fields.
A study published in 2015 titled “Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation”, further explains the gender imbalance in the field of engineering and the reasons that push women to leave that career path. Women, who may want to be engineers, will encounter many obstacles in their path, which men do not have to face. Susan S. Silbey, one of the authors of the study, explains that many women endure gender stereotyping both in school and the work environment. Women in the study reported being assigned menial tasks and administrative work in school assignments and internships, instead of tasks that enriched their problem-solving and technical skills. This stereotyping of women and their abilities, along with reported blatant sexual harassment in the workplace push women away from pursuing these careers more than anything else.
It may seem easy to succumb to the notion that girls are not naturally interested in STEM careers. The truth appears to be that they are in fact interested, just not in careers where their contributions are devalued and their roles are diminished. Thus, pursuit of careers in technology and engineering largely depends on whether there is a support system that encourages and promotes women’s participation and skills. We need to not only get girls interested in engineering and technology; we need to ensure they have a fair environment to flourish in.
This effort is not about girl power and it is not a feminist agenda item; it is smart economic policy. When half the population in the United States is female, it makes sense for policy makers, organizations and individuals to place greater emphasis on the role of women in STEM fields. As mentioned in my previous article, in order for the United States to remain competitive and at the vanguard of innovation, we need to increase the number of graduates in STEM careers. We particularly need more scientists and engineers, and we can only achieve that goal by getting our girls and women stay engaged in and to pursue those careers. Therefore, the push to get more girls interested in traditionally male-dominated fields is not misguided; it is the smart thing to do.
Cummins, D. (2015, April 17). Column: Why the STEM gender gap is overblown. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from PBS Newshour Making Sense
Gaines, J. (2017, May 03). Women in Male-Dominated Careers. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from Cornell HR Review
National Science Foundation. (2017, January). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from National Science Foundation
Seron, C., Silbey, S. S., Cech, E., & Rubineau, B. (2015, December 16). Persistence is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from Sage Journals
Silbey, S. S. (2016, August 23). Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from Harvard Business Review
he Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2015). Population Distribution by Gender. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from Kaiser Family Foundation