women in stem

Despite years of collective efforts to overcome gender barriers, women remain wildly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). According to UNESCO, as of 2018, women accounted for only one-third of all scientific researchers in 107 countries. Think that’s a bit stark? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In the 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, statistics show that the imbalance is even starker, particularly in the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, such as computer and mathematical occupations (26.7%), engineering and architecture (16.1%), and physics. This trend is all the more problematic, as there is a growing skill shortage in these very fields.

On the bright side, however, women have achieved parity in (or even dominate) chemistry and material science (46.3%) and biological science (57.9%), an impressive feat in fields where women’s progress and educational gains have usually been slower and less dramatic.

And while this information might seem like just simple numbers and figures, it poses an important yet puzzling question: If women could thrive in scientific areas and are increasingly prominent in historically male-dominated fields, what continues to hold them back in the lab, as award winners, or in simply becoming scientists, engineers, and mathematicians?

Women in STEM, by the numbers

In a 2021 report by the World Bank Group (WBG), a comprehensive analysis of the participation of women and girls (relative to men and boys) in STEM-related education and employment shows a notable and wider gender gap.

The average global participation of women at the tertiary level exceeds that of men at a ratio of 113 women for every 100 men, representing 54% of all graduates. The same is true of master’s and doctoral degrees, at 56% and 46%, respectively. However, they are less likely to major in specific STEM fields.

Available data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) revealed that, globally, only 7% of women (compared to 22% of men) choose to study construction, engineering, and manufacturing. More specifically, there are only 25% of females in physics, 24% in engineering, and 22% in computer science. On the other hand, more women participate in mathematics and statistics (41%), earth sciences (45%), chemistry (53%), and biological sciences (65%) — quite a remarkable gain, but still indicative of gender bias issues.

It is not surprising, therefore, that women who join the STEM workforce end up in the minority, making up just 29% of people in core STEM occupations. Dubbed by UNESCO as a “leaky pipeline,” women are more likely to leave STEM careers, revealing how the skewed pattern of differences in sex at the tertiary level translates into occupational sex segregation. For example, in 2021 across the U.S., women represented 49% of the total graduates, but only 7% (versus 21% of men) were in science and engineering occupations.

Still, although progress has been uneven, the numbers are slowly rising. NSF reports that from 2019 to 2021 in the U.S., the number of women in STEM occupations increased in biological and life sciences, computer science and mathematics, engineering, physical sciences, and social sciences.

In the Philippines, where the STEM gender gap was found to be the highest in the Asia-Pacific region,an increasing trend of STEM workers (of both sexes) was also observed in the 2021 research report by the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI). Specifically, there was a 148% increase in the number of females employed in the STEM fields from 1990 to 2015, with nursing and midwifery, health-related fields, and engineering as the top three field classifications, respectively.

So, what holds back women in STEM?

The common perception is that women are less interested than men in STEM. Although technically correct (as both sexes report this viewpoint), it is shortsighted and incomplete in problematic ways. Moreover, ending with this explanation worsens the very disparities it seeks to explain, usually attracting ideologically driven discussions that contain more heat and hate than light. A better solution is to identify and understand the factors causing women’s underrepresentation (or lack of interest) in these important fields and ultimately encourage their participation.

Case in point: Public perceptions of science are inherently influenced by the dominant social norms that position STEM as male-oriented. Most likely, when someone is asked what a scientist looks like, the image is predominantly male, white (or Asian), middle-aged or elderly, and bespectacled.

In the WBG report, a large and growing body of evidence points to traditional stereotypes and biases (i.e., men are better at mathematics and science than women, scientific traits like objectivity and rationality are generally consistent in men, etc.) as critical drivers of gender gaps in STEM. Additionally, this presents higher barriers for women as gender-based stereotypes influence a range of psychological factors such as aspirations, identity, interests, mindsets, motivation, self-confidence, and self-efficacy.

For example, implicitly associating mathematics and science with men is correlated with girls performing less effectively. This is demonstrated in research by Scientific American showing that describing an activity as something that females “don’t enjoy” causes girls to be less interested, changing their behavior.

This implicit bias is particularly true in educational, movie, and television materials, where men are usually depicted as professionals in science and women in stereotypical roles in the household. In short, women lack role models.

In the workplace, besides the gender pay gap, women face the same obstacles. Given the structural and institutional barriers in working in male-dominated workplaces, women find it difficult to blend in and advocate for themselves, resulting in fewer women advancing through their careers. Or when they do, they encounter the so-called “glass ceiling.” Additionally, when in the minority position, women are more likely to be pressured to take on extra work, leaving them feeling isolated and susceptible to harassment. Furthermore, the isolation can be exacerbated when women cannot participate in work events and attend conferences because of family obligations (e.g., pregnancy, child care, etc.).

Bridging the gap

For the past several decades, there have been numerous and continuous efforts to improve and broaden the representation of women and girls in STEM. Strategies like educational reforms and individual programs, such as the American Physical Society (APS) Bridge Program, NSF ADVANCE Program, and Girls Who Code, help change the stereotypical narratives and improve the STEM culture.

In the Philippines, similar approaches are done to increase the level of awareness and interest of women and girls in pursuing STEM careers. For example, the DOST-SEI encourages both undergraduate and graduate students to join the STEM workforce by administering different scholarships and holding collaborative competitions such as the Tagisang Robotics Competition 3.0: Girls and Gears and imake.wemake:create.innovate.collaborate.

The status quo clearly shows that there is still a long way to go to bridge, if not completely close, the gender gap in STEM. And while acknowledging the existence of gender disparities is a great start, understanding the contextual and historical reasons for why these gender disparities exist is key to creating a culture that is more welcoming to women and girls.

Today, more women pursue STEM careers, as shown by statistics — but we have to do more. If we want to change narratives and shatter barriers, we have to put in a conscious effort to challenge our traditional ways of thinking and recognize that this is a systemic problem that is not only the STEM industry’s responsibility, but ours as a society. This is critical so that we aren’t simply filling in the gaps with like-minded individuals that could “fit in,” but are actually creating an institution that can best serve a diverse community: inclusive, open to change, and learning from our differences. Beyond any statistical data, numbers, and figures, this is how we can truly achieve gender equality in STEM.—MF


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Author: Romelyn Yamio

Romelyn Yamio is a physicist, academic researcher, and freelance writer. She’s also a comic nerd. FLIPSCIENCE LOVES HER VERY MUCH. It has to be true, it’s in all caps.