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Females and STEM careers

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Hello friends,

A few days ago I have stumbled upon this article that describes among other things various experiences some women can face while majoring and working in the STEM field. Here is the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Now, this is unsettling and all, but I have a question related to this. What is it specifically that males tend to look down upon females for? Are they discriminated against simply for what is located between their legs and on their chests? Or is it the way in which they present themselves? I am aware people might believe in the sexual dimorphism in the brain and assume females to be inferior/less capable of complex thought, which could explain why females get "looked down" upon in college, males thinking they won't make it to see the end of their program, but it does not explain the experiences in the work field. The woman has received the degree, it should be assumed that she knows and understands what she has been taught. So, back to the question, would a woman who is more masculine than feminine face the same discrimination, or any at all? The article talks about women scientists in Italy and France wearing short skirts and such, and there is less of a problem about it. If a women wore that in America, she wouldn't be taken very seriously. So what if a woman wore button up shirts, a tie, a blazer, dress slacks, had a "masculine" hair cut and didn't wear feminine jewelery? Would she then be just as likely to get hired, receive adequate grants, and take home the same salary as a male?

Sorry if this question seems obvious, but I have not worked a STEM job, and am not in school obtaining a STEM degree. (Yet).

Thank you.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Quantum Defect
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Hello friends,

A few days ago I have stumbled upon this article that describes among other things various experiences some women can face while majoring and working in the STEM field. Here is the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Now, this is unsettling and all, but I have a question related to this. What is it specifically that males tend to look down upon females for? Are they discriminated against simply for what is located between their legs and on their chests? Or is it the way in which they present themselves? I am aware people might believe in the sexual dimorphism in the brain and assume females to be inferior/less capable of complex thought, which could explain why females get "looked down" upon in college, males thinking they won't make it to see the end of their program, but it does not explain the experiences in the work field. The woman has received the degree, it should be assumed that she knows and understands what she has been taught. So, back to the question, would a woman who is more masculine than feminine face the same discrimination, or any at all? The article talks about women scientists in Italy and France wearing short skirts and such, and there is less of a problem about it. If a women wore that in America, she wouldn't be taken very seriously. So what if a woman wore button up shirts, a tie, a blazer, dress slacks, had a "masculine" hair cut and didn't wear feminine jewelery? Would she then be just as likely to get hired, receive adequate grants, and take home the same salary as a male?

Sorry if this question seems obvious, but I have not worked a STEM job, and am not in school obtaining a STEM degree. (Yet).

Thank you.
There is a lot of literature on this.

Virginia Valian has written a book ("Why So Slow?") that discusses a lot of issues about the lack of women in STEM. There are interesting cultural differences as you note. There is some very intersting history with this, as well. I have been told by colleaugues that in the very early days of computer science, representation was much more like the general population (50:50) as time went on, the discipline began to look like the other sciences. Right now, I believe that it is one of the least integrated disciplines. Maria Klawe has done some experiments with the curriculum at Harvey Mudd College that has found some simple things that can be done to help turn this around in computer science.

You can also read about "implicit bias", "stereotype threat", etc.
 
  • #3
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experiences some women can face while majoring and working in the STEM field
Personally, I think that "the STEM field" is a little overly broad. STEM is a collection of many different fields with corresponding different dynamics. I am in biomedical engineering which is heavily populated by women at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Other degree programs at the same institutions, such as electrical engineering, are much less heavily populated by women.

So I suspect that at least some of the gender-bias is due to self-selection (although self-selection is difficult to separate). There are clearly fields within the broad STEM category where women preferentially choose to go. Probably in those fields they face less discrimination since females are not unusual in those fields.
 
  • #4
In mathematical subjects (math, stats, actuarial, operations research, appl. math) women make up are around 45% as a percentage of majors/professionals.
 
  • #5
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That NY times article is a piece of propaganda journalism to promote the feminist agenda. It has been noted by many sources that many people in America are dismissing an education/career in the sciences, in favor of higher paying jobs with less work in other areas. Not to mention the mentality of this current generation that can be summed uped with this phrase: " If it doesn't make dollars it doesn't make sense."

Using a prestigious school(Harvard, Yell, Princeton, what evers) is not even a sound basis for an article. Many people who are intellectually gifted get rejected from this institutions frequently. If anything women have more rights than men.
 
  • #6
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I don't know exactly what the numbers are, but I have plenty of anecdotal experience throughout my career confirming that women are not well represented in science or engineering.

In school, they were approximately ten percent of all the students. In the workplace they were about ten percent of all engineers or technical staff. This was as true 20 years ago as it is today.

As a father of two daughters, this bothers me. I would like to see one of them go in to a STEM based career.

I have a vague notion of what's going on here. The bias, if there is one, is that most young STEM students have a rather focused, anti-social attitude. You could see it right there in my college handbooks. It said basically, if you are a business/liberal arts student, expect 2-3 hours of assignments every evening on average. If you're a Science/Engineering student, expect 4-5 hours of assignments on an average evening. So who would go for such a thing? Only someone who can live without much social life for years at a time.

The male students I knew in college were mostly introverts, as were the few female students. One almost has to be an introvert to survive this sort of academic hazing. That introversion survives right in to the workplace. The STEM studies require a great deal of focus around abstract ideas that is generally only possible with a lot of independent study.

This is the reality behind the joke: How do you know if an engineer is extroverted? They're the ones looking at the other guy's shoes.

My take on this is that such introversion is more difficult socially for women than for men. If a boy is introverted and would rather work on computers, radios, cars, or whatever, they're dismissed as being shy or smart. If a girl is introverted, she is still expected to pay attention to her appearance and to socialize. This essentially squelches any but the, most motivated girls from pursuing difficult, focused studies.

There may be other imperatives in place that cause such self selection. I am not dogmatic about nature/nurture arguments. The bottom line, however, is that both the women and men who are in Science, Engineering, or Mathematics frequently express a painful social awkwardness at least until they are established in the workplace. That awkwardness is because they have/prefer/want/need to cope with the demands of the study. Thus the lack of women IS a social problem, but I don't think it is the routine discriminatory stuff that so many journalists think it is.
 
  • #7
SteamKing
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Using a prestigious school(Harvard, Yell, Princeton, what evers) is not even a sound basis for an article.
I think you mean Yale University. Yell University sounds like something in the Ozarks. :D
 
  • #8
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You know something interesting. As a female in STEM, I have mostly faced discouragement from other females. Actually, none of the males I have encountered in STEM have been discriminatory or discouraging about me pursuing further studies in physics or w/e stem career.

Most of my friends+sister share the same experience.

Edit: I would like to add that I have talked and interacted with a lot of females in STEM careers at conventions and conferences and none of the ones I have encountered faced any of the negatives or discriminatory stuff that one still reads about in articles/journals. I am between the age of 18-23 and most of the women I have talked are in this age range too. *Not trying to say that it doesn't happen* I am just wondering if the stuff the OP indicated about judgement based on clothing choices and stuff happen more among an older age group?

I tutor students in math, physics, and chemistry and I have both male and female students.

My female students believe that they are not good at math or science because they have to ask for help. I keep telling them that they are very good and very capable etc. I am working on encouraging them to to become confident.

My male students on the other hand are much different. Even if they get a few low marks or have trouble with math, they are still confident about their future majors/career choices. They still are determined to pursue STEM careers and I continue to encourage them to do so.
 
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  • #9
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Auto correct on tablet. Can not be bothered to spell check.
 
  • #10
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As bluechic said, as a female in STEM there has been no one really discriminating against me. I've been given scholarships and opportunities which are meant to combat discrimination that just isn't there. All of these extra privileges are not combating the problem. The issue isn't that women are "discriminated against" more than a man of the same qualifications would be, but that women are wired differently and this is hard to fit into academia. After graduate school, a post-doc, and the hard road leading to tenure, you're typically in your mid-to-late 30's if you're ambitious. And even then, your job is your life. Taking five or so years off of work to raise a child to the point where they're able to enter school is unheard of, if you want to enter back into the workforce.

TL;DR- biological clock ticks at the same rate as academic clock
 
  • #11
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As bluechic said, as a female in STEM there has been no one really discriminating against me.
You're not in STEM though, you're in the very early stages of a STEM education. The article mostly refers to issues that happen either after a PhD, or mid-career. Hopefully you won't encounter the bias, but you should probably prepare for it anyways.
 
  • #12
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Yes, but when samnorris93 is "in STEM", it will be in the future for her co-workers as well.

People who got their PhD's in the 60's are retiring now. The idea that the academic world is some kind of microcosm of Mad Men is becoming less and less true as people from that era retire. Or die.
 
  • #13
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You're not in STEM though, you're in the very early stages of a STEM education. The article mostly refers to issues that happen either after a PhD, or mid-career. Hopefully you won't encounter the bias, but you should probably prepare for it anyways.
However these issues should not bother anyone. one should not care what others think of you. If a person needs some type of validation from others, then they are feeble minded. I hate when feminist exaggerate the issue OF discrimination and sexism perpetrated towards women.

To cut it short. Who cares do as you please. That is why I dislike the current t generation. Always caring what others think of them. boohoo I got cyber bullied by a stranger who lives in another county. Boo hoo that white guy doesn't like me because I'm not white. Boo hoo I live in poverty so I had to live in poverty.

Sometimes things do not come to us as easily as we please. However, if we still pursue that little idea we have inside of us and make it a reality. It is far more enjoyable taste then it would have been if acquired by no feat.
 
  • #14
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Yes, but when samnorris93 is "in STEM", it will be in the future for her co-workers as well.

People who got their PhD's in the 60's are retiring now. The idea that the academic world is some kind of microcosm of Mad Men is becoming less and less true as people from that era retire. Or die.
a very intelligent point.
 
  • #15
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MidgetDwarf said everything I was going to. Many of these feminists are complaining that social stereotypes that women aren't as good in math or science are discouraging girls from going into math and science. As several forum members have stated before, that discrimination almost always comes from women, and furthermore these stereotypes apparently have no effect on the fact that on average girls score higher than boys in ALL subjects, including STEM.

The big thing to take away from this, though, is that if someone isn't going to pursue STEM because they're afraid they won't succeed or that the giants of STEM look and are different from them, then they have no place in STEM. Period. If their will is so weak that they require the rest of society to hold their hand and encourage them, then they wouldn't have succeeded anyway. Successful STEM people are successful because they love what they do, not because they're mildly interested and their mommy told them they can do it.
 
  • #16
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The big thing to take away from this, though, is that if someone isn't going to pursue STEM because they're afraid they won't succeed or that the giants of STEM look and are different from them, then they have no place in STEM. Period. If their will is so weak that they require the rest of society to hold their hand and encourage them, then they wouldn't have succeeded anyway. Successful STEM people are successful because they love what they do, not because they're mildly interested and their mommy told them they can do it.
I had this conversation with my dad because it bothered me that my female students+some of my female friends acted that way. We sort of starting talking about risks. We feel that (some) females are less likely to take certain risks* compared to (some) males. For example, if one is already doubting her abilities in science one is more likely to doubt pursuing science in the future, because what would the benefit be if one is not good enough? This is sort of applied in many sorts of areas and not just academics or career.

*Note we didn't end up doing any research and this was just a discussion we were having. I just decided to share to get some opinion. I am aware that men and women both taking risks during their lifetime... maybe risk is not the right word, but I can't think of a better one right now. I inserted the "some" so I don't get lashed out for generalizing and such.

I admit that I have had some doubts of pursuing a PhD in physics, but I never doubted my interest in STEM. If I don't become a physicist ,then I become an engineer. =)

On another note, I would like to point out the reactions that I get when I tell people my undergrad major/or career aspirations:
Men: "What field of physics are you interested in?", "Wow, that's neat. I hope you share the Nobel Prize money with me", "Nice!"

(most )Women: "I hated physics back in high school" , "That's impressive, I could never do that" , "You must be so smart", "I'm not good at math"


Most of the female reactions get on my nerves. For the most part, the only females that do not react this way are other physics majors/physicists.
 
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  • #17
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TL;DR- biological clock ticks at the same rate as academic clock
And that right there is the greatest barrier to equality. Society has a woman's value as a person wrapped up in her ability and willingness to reproduce, and the "biological clock" does not actually exist.

Until this thinking that it should be a woman's primary obligation to breed finally goes away, gender inequality will always be a problem.
 
  • #18
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My mother related a story to me many years ago: She went to college for a BS in Chemistry in the 1950s. Like most other Chemistry students she often carried big science text books and a slide rule. One of her (male) instructors noticed this and asked: "What are you studying that for? You'll never get married and have children!" That was real discrimination in more ways than I'd like to think about. Undeterred, she graduated anyway. She met and married my father a few years later. I was the first of five children. My parents are both in good health and still married after more than 50 years. I'm sure she still laughs about that oaf of an instructor to this day.

The reason I relate this is because, even today, I think the assumption of marriage and children weigh a great deal heavier on women than men. This is both a sociological and a biological imperative. I think the social assumptions are often strongest among women. I see it among the parents of other girls in the high school my children attend. I see it in the behavior of those girls toward my oldest daughter.

This concerns me because my daughter has the focus and the intensity to do great things if she chooses to. Like me at that age, she marches to her own beat. She does things on her own terms and she doesn't care much about what other kids think.

However, she's a rarity. There are significantly more boys who fit that behavior pattern than girls. That's the sort of nerdiness it takes to be successful at STEM careers. Note that not all nerds pursue STEM. Some study other things. Even before they have written a college application, most girls have already self selected away from STEM. And no, I don't see much changing that would encourage more girls to take an interest in these careers. This is not just discrimination. It is an active, multi-level effort to discourage girls. It starts at a very early age and it is tied to some very deeply held assumptions and, frankly biological imperatives in our society.

This gap isn't just a case of opening up opportunities. It goes far deeper than that. I don't think a solution will be easy or short term.
 
  • #19
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And that right there is the greatest barrier to equality. Society has a woman's value as a person wrapped up in her ability and willingness to reproduce, and the "biological clock" does not actually exist.

Until this thinking that it should be a woman's primary obligation to breed finally goes away, gender inequality will always be a problem.
I should rephrase what I said previously. I (and I assume many other women) don't want to have kids because society pressures me to, but because I want to. Maybe the "biological clock" doesn't exist, but you can't dispute that having a child in your mid-40's is much more challenging than having a child in your early 30's.

You're not in STEM though, you're in the very early stages of a STEM education. The article mostly refers to issues that happen either after a PhD, or mid-career. Hopefully you won't encounter the bias, but you should probably prepare for it anyways.
A valid point. However, as I prepare to go to graduate school, I can't help but wonder what the point is if I'm going to need to abandon my career in order to have children and start a family.
 
  • #20
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A valid point. However, as I prepare to go to graduate school, I can't help but wonder what the point is if I'm going to need to abandon my career in order to have children and start a family.
Well, you don't need to. if it's down to picking one or the other, then the only person who can make that choice is you. Which one do you want more?

Realistically, it's not a binary either-or. But you'd have to make certain sacrifices in each one: less time with the family, having to prioritize location, salary, and benefits over personal interests in the work, and less mobility.
 
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  • #21
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I had this conversation with my dad because it bothered me that my female students+some of my female friends acted that way. We sort of starting talking about risks. We feel that (some) females are less likely to take certain risks* compared to (some) males. For example, if one is already doubting her abilities in science one is more likely to doubt pursuing science in the future, because what would the benefit be if one is not good enough? This is sort of applied in many sorts of areas and not just academics or career.

*Note we didn't end up doing any research and this was just a discussion we were having. I just decided to share to get some opinion. I am aware that men and women both taking risks during their lifetime... maybe risk is not the right word, but I can't think of a better one right now. I inserted the "some" so I don't get lashed out for generalizing and such.

I admit that I have had some doubts of pursuing a PhD in physics, but I never doubted my interest in STEM. If I don't become a physicist ,then I become an engineer. =)

On another note, I would like to point out the reactions that I get when I tell people my undergrad major/or career aspirations:
Men: "What field of physics are you interested in?", "Wow, that's neat. I hope you share the Nobel Prize money with me", "Nice!"

(most )Women: "I hated physics back in high school" , "That's impressive, I could never do that" , "You must be so smart", "I'm not good at math"


Most of the female reactions get on my nerves. For the most part, the only females that do not react this way are other physics majors/physicists.
Everyone please remember that what I am about to say is very generalized. I obviously know there are exceptions, so many that this generalization is as loose as can be.

I'm no expert, but I'd say that men are more unstable in pretty much every way (GENERALLY SPEAKING). We have much more testosterone, which as we all know promotes muscle growth and dominance and whatever else. I think that men are not only unstable in emotional ways like anger fits, but also in intelligence and risk taking (once again, very general statement). That's why you see the little boys doing many more stupid things in school than the little girls, and that makes them more likely to pursue what they want against resistance from society or whatever.

This also would explain why there tend to be significantly more male geniuses than female ones; greater instability. Test scores gathered from decades and decades of research have shown that while males are more likely to be off the charts smart, they're equally more likely to be far below average intelligence. This explains why the average girl does better than the average boy in just about all subjects, but why the einsteins and feynmans are more likely to be male, just as the severely disabled are more likely to be male. In other words, girls usually have less variance.

Once again, this is all very generalized, and I'm not advocating for males here, just stating facts. In fact, I'd say females may have the better end of the deal since the extremely gifted geniuses tend not to be as happy or well adjusted as average or just above average people. Maybe its just me, but security in being around average, maybe below, maybe above, is better.
 
  • #22
StatGuy2000
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My mother related a story to me many years ago: She went to college for a BS in Chemistry in the 1950s. Like most other Chemistry students she often carried big science text books and a slide rule. One of her (male) instructors noticed this and asked: "What are you studying that for? You'll never get married and have children!" That was real discrimination in more ways than I'd like to think about. Undeterred, she graduated anyway. She met and married my father a few years later. I was the first of five children. My parents are both in good health and still married after more than 50 years. I'm sure she still laughs about that oaf of an instructor to this day.

The reason I relate this is because, even today, I think the assumption of marriage and children weigh a great deal heavier on women than men. This is both a sociological and a biological imperative. I think the social assumptions are often strongest among women. I see it among the parents of other girls in the high school my children attend. I see it in the behavior of those girls toward my oldest daughter.

This concerns me because my daughter has the focus and the intensity to do great things if she chooses to. Like me at that age, she marches to her own beat. She does things on her own terms and she doesn't care much about what other kids think.

However, she's a rarity. There are significantly more boys who fit that behavior pattern than girls. That's the sort of nerdiness it takes to be successful at STEM careers. Note that not all nerds pursue STEM. Some study other things. Even before they have written a college application, most girls have already self selected away from STEM. And no, I don't see much changing that would encourage more girls to take an interest in these careers. This is not just discrimination. It is an active, multi-level effort to discourage girls. It starts at a very early age and it is tied to some very deeply held assumptions and, frankly biological imperatives in our society.

This gap isn't just a case of opening up opportunities. It goes far deeper than that. I don't think a solution will be easy or short term.
I think it is worth keeping in mind when we talk about women and STEM to make a clear distinction between the different fields. As you see in Figure from the NSF in the link to the article below, if you look at college graduation rates at the undergraduate level, you find that >50% of all degrees earned in the life sciences are women (and approximately 50% of chemistry bachelors degrees were awarded by women). By contrast <30% of bachelors degrees in physics were awarded to women.

http://www.socwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/fact_12-2007-stem.pdf

From the above figure, even in areas like engineering (a field widely reported to be underrepresented by women), you find that there are significant differences in fields like chemical or industrial engineering (which have a fairly high percentage of women earning bachelors degrees) vs fields like electrical or mechanical engineering, which have very few women earning degrees of any type.
 
  • #23
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Well, you don't need to. if it's down to picking one or the other, then the only person who can make that choice is you. Which one do you want more?

Realistically, it's not a binary either-or. But you'd have to make certain sacrifices in each one: less time with the family, having to prioritize location, salary, and benefits over personal interests in the work, and less mobility.
You say it's not binary, but it seems like it is binary up until I get a tenured position. From some testimonials I've read, it seems like getting pregnant may be grounds for dismissal from a PhD or postdoc program.
 
  • #24
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You say it's not binary, but it seems like it is binary up until I get a tenured position. From some testimonials I've read, it seems like getting pregnant may be grounds for dismissal from a PhD or postdoc program.
Where did you read this? That's definitely not true. People would file law suits for that.

Look no matter which career path one chooses, I would imagine one will always have this sorts of things to deal with. I have met pregnant grad students, post-docs, non-tenured profs etc. It isn't any easier for men in academia either, but obviously different issues to consider.

If you want a PhD, go for it. If you want to work in academia, go for it. Everything else that happens will happen because that's life and you have to deal with it.

If you want children, I am sure they will be happy growing that you worked very hard to achieve your goals. Whatever those goals may be. =)
 
  • #25
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You say it's not binary, but it seems like it is binary up until I get a tenured position. From some testimonials I've read, it seems like getting pregnant may be grounds for dismissal from a PhD or postdoc program.
However, becoming pregnant is a choice. It is sexist to believe that all women want to have children. Not many people receive tenure positions. There are not many tenure positions going around.
 

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