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10 Reasons Women Struggle in STEM

Over the past few decades, women have made amazing progress in higher education, now making up more than 57% of college students. Yet that progress hasn’t been distributed evenly over all majors. Women still only comprise a very small percentage of students in STEM majors and hold an even smaller number of STEM jobs in academia. Low enrollment in STEM college programs naturally translates to few women working in STEM professions, as is evidenced by the fact that only 27% of computer scientists and 15% of engineers are women.

Yet many experts aren’t sure just why women steer clear of pursuing STEM careers, as many have the intelligence, drive, and the support of STEM programs and initiatives to succeed. New research has shed some light on the matter, showing that these things alone may not be enough to move women into STEM. Deeply rooted attitudes about women in the sciences paired with the harsh realities of sexism on the job can leave many women struggling to find a place in STEM. While conditions may improve in the coming decades, here are just a few of the reasons women aren’t a major force in STEM fields today.

  1. Men are favored over women in college STEM programs.

    A recent study done at Yale exposed some uncomfortable truths about the way women are regarded by college professors in STEM. The study found that recent female graduates in STEM fields were routinely labeled by professors as being less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills. Strikingly, the bias was pervasive and existed with professors in all fields, ages, and levels of experience, showcasing a much more troubling cultural bias against women in the sciences than was previously thought to exist. Even the authors of the study were taken aback, stating, "I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were—that not only do the faculty in biology, chemistry and physics express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results were really quite striking."

  2. Even women succumb to biases about STEM.

    While most working in STEM fields are men, it’s not just men who hold biases about should work in STEM positions. Women are guilty too, even when they themselves work in a science, math, engineering, or tech field. In a recent New York Times piece, Dr. Danielle Ofri admits that even she, as a doctor, automatically assumes that doctors are men. While Dr. Ofri clearly doesn’t think women can’t or shouldn’t be doctors, not all preconceived ideas about STEM majors are so innocent. The Yale study that exposed a bias against female students in STEM also showcased that the bias wasn’t just from male faculty. Female professors were found to be just as biased against women students as male professors, even in fields like biology where a significant portion of students are female.

  3. Women are less likely to be offered a STEM job.

    Biases against women in STEM don’t end after graduation. The same negative attitudes about women in science exist in the workforce as well. Sadly, these attitudes can make it harder for women to get a job or to advance to a higher-level position. When a woman is competing against a man for a job, even with all other things being equal, studies suggest that the man will be the preferred candidate, which justly leaves many women in STEM feeling frustrated. While programs to help improve diversity in hiring can help, they’re not a cure-all for helping women get ahead. Even when women are offered a job they’re not likely to be paid as much as men and won’t see as many raises and promotions as their male counterparts.

  4. STEM jobs pay women less than men.

    While the wage gap between men’s and women’s salaries is much smaller in STEM than in other fields, there’s still a substantial difference in pay. A recent study at the University of Michigan found that female physicians and scientists are paid much less than their male counterparts, even when accounting for factors like work hours, academic titles, medical specialties, and age. All factors being equal, men’s salaries averaged $12,000 higher than women’s, which over the course of a career adds up to more than $350,000. Why the difference? Researchers believe that there are two major factors working against women: most leadership positions are held by men who may be biased (even unconsciously) and women are less aggressive about asking for raises and promotions. The medical profession isn’t alone in paying women lower salaries than men. Women make substantially less than men in all but a handful of STEM careers. Sadly, the bias starts early. The study at Yale on new STEM grads also found that when professors in the study thought the applicant was male the starting salary offered was nearly $5,000 higher.

  5. Studies suggest that women often have less confidence than men in STEM careers.

    While any of these factors alone may not hold women back in STEM, experts believe the combination of them could have serious ramifications. Decades of small slights, less recognition, and little support could leave women feeling much less confident in their professional abilities than their male counterparts, which can poison a career. In a recent Scientific American article, Ilana Yurkiewicz shares that women often don’t question it when they are told that they don’t measure up academically or professionally, even if the assessment may not be valid. She states, "If your work is rejected for an obviously bad reason, such as "it’s because you’re a woman," you can simply dismiss the one who rejected you as biased and therefore not worth taking seriously. But if someone tells you that you are less competent, it’s easy to accept as true." This seems to be a fairly common occurrence in STEM (and potentially other careers, too) and could affect women choosing and sticking with a career in STEM.

  6. It’s harder for women in STEM to find a mentor.

    Finding a strong mentor can be an excellent way to excel in any field, STEM or otherwise. Unfortunately, it’s often much harder for women in STEM to find mentors than their male counterparts. Part of the problem is that there simply aren’t many women in STEM to act as mentors for students, but there are other factors at work, too. Since women are seen as being less competent, faculty may feel less inclined to mentor them or to lend support to students they don’t believe will end up working professionally in the field.

  7. STEM is still a boys’ club.

    Even when women in STEM have good salaries, lab space, and funding, they’re still often not as happy as their male counterparts. A study at OSU showed that the unhappiness was largely caused by exclusion. Women are often left out of networks in the workplace, as male colleagues spend less time socializing and building relationships with their female coworkers. In fact, the largest gap in satisfaction in the academic workplace for women in engineering was found to be in informal networks. Without colleagues to talk with, share ideas, and get support from, many women feel left out of the important social aspects of STEM academia. Of course, the "boys’ club" attitude also causes other issues too, especially when it comes to hiring and promotions.

  8. Women are more likely to quit STEM jobs.

    Even when women battle through stereotypes and biases and make a successful career in a STEM field, they’re much less likely to stick with it than their male counterparts. Part of the problem is that women aren’t able to advance as quickly as men in their careers, which can lead to frustration and job dissatisfaction. Another contributing factor is workload. Seventy-two percent of women in engineering report feeling like they have to work harder to be perceived as legitimate scholars. Many also report feeling greater obligation to spend time with students and serve on university committees, which can take a significant amount of time. Add to that a feeling of alienation from colleagues and perceived biases, and you’ve got a recipe that drives many women out of STEM.

  9. Stereotypes play a very significant, if unconscious, role in women’s STEM success.

    Most of us would like to think we’re above buying into stereotypes, but the truth is that few of us truly are, even scientists who operate on objectivity. A study at the University of Arizona found some interesting results when researchers recorded conversations that took place in a typical academic STEM setting. They found that when female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded very competent, but when they calked to male colleagues they sounded less so. The researchers posited that the difference was due to a phenomenon called "stereotype threat," where when one party is so worried about fulfilling a negative stereotype and being judged by others that the stereotype inadvertently becomes self-fulfilling. They are careful to state, however, that the problem isn’t with women but with the existence of the stereotype itself. Until stereotypes about women in science change, these issues of confidence and competence will continue to make STEM careers harder for women to pursue.

  10. Nowhere in the world do women make up a significant portion of STEM workers.

    Sadly, the problems that hold women back in STEM fields here in the U.S. also do so, sometimes even more notably, in other countries around the world. There is no country that women can point to as a true model of equality and bias-free hiring in STEM, which can be a bit depressing for those who’ve chosen a career in a STEM field. A recent report led by Women in Global Science & Technology and the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World, showcased the truly global nature of the lack of women in STEM professions. The report addressed the U.S., Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, and the European Union, and found that in every region women made up a very small percentage of the STEM workforce. In some regions, numbers of women in STEM are even declining. The best place for women in science was found to be Europe, with the U.S. a close second. Sadly, the far-reaching gender inequities in India caused it to rank last. This study exposes just how much still needs to done to ensure that bright, motivated women have the same opportunities for advancement in STEM fields as their male counterparts, no matter where they live in the world.

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