EDITORIAL: Despite progress, not enough being done to encourage girls to enter STEM fields studies

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related fields try to solve the world’s problems. Epidemiologists research diseases to find potential cures and treatments. Mathematicians solve complex real-world problems. Marine biologists study the impact of global warming on the Earth’s oceans. Yet, even in the year 2019, these fields continue to possess unresolved problems. One such problem is the gender gap or the significant difference in the number of men in the STEM fields compared to the number of women.

Although the number of women graduating with STEM degrees has increased in recent years, rising nearly 43 percent from 2009 to 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it is still not enough, given the technologically and culturally diverse society that we live in. 

Studies from the University of Melbourne indicate that there are five times as many men as there are women in computer science careers.The study also concludes that it will take a mind-blowing 280 years before men and women will equally partake in computer science research. 

As for the wage gap, a study conducted at Ohio State University reveals that one year after they graduate, women with Ph.D.s in science and engineering fields can expect to earn 31 percent less than do men. 

Another true but unfortunate statistic was that women in the United States made up less than one-quarter (24 percent) of those employed in STEM occupations in 2015. That means roughly 76 percent of the STEM workforce was male!  “In history STEM has always been considered a male-dominated field, and I feel the reason that there are less women in STEM fields is that it is really hard to break the barrier,” divulges Rachel Johnson, president of the Society of Women Engineers at Washington State University. “It is really hard for an 18-year-old girl, a freshman engineer to enter a class that contains only five girls.” Clearly, this is a tendency that needs to be corrected, and women need to break through the glass wall that separates them from men. 

The glass barrier is also apparent at the high school level, finding its way into Olympic Heights High School’s engineering and computer science classes. A visit to Ms. Nirmala Arunachalam’s (Ms. Nimmi) fourth period Principles of Engineering class reveals there are only five girls in a class of 31 students. Ms. Nimmi confirms that she and the other Engineering Academy teachers “try to schedule the classes so that girls have at least two or three other girls to talk to.” 

These numbers are astonishing considering that women make up about half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce. One would think that in a developed country such as the U.S., there would not be such a massive disparity between the two sexes. However, this is the reality of our globalized world: gender stereotypes and discrimination still exist.

Indeed, the trend of discrimination in science fields is heavily evident in history. For instance, if you were to ask someone from the 1800s who discovered sex chromosomes, they would likely credit a man named E.B. Wilson. However, later research proves that the true and accurate discoverer of sex chromosomes was a in fact a woman by the name Nettie Stevens. Stevens published her studies around the same time as Wilson, but due to his “more substantial contributions in other areas,” according to historian Steven Brush, he received all the credit. What makes this case a great example of the sexism women faced is that he had actually seen her results before he published his own. She should have, at the very least, been considered a co-discoverer; however, sexism cruelly prevented this from transpiring. 

Probably the most well known demonstration of sexism in the science workplace is that of Rosalind Franklin and the so-called ‘geniuses’ of the discovery of the  helical structure of DNA: James Watson and Francis Crick.

 Like Nettie Stevens before her, Franklin experienced something historians term as the “Matilda Effect”: the practice of crediting women’s accomplishments to men. In other words, she didn’t receive recognition for her significant contributions. As an expert of X-ray crystallography, Franklin produced a picture known as Photo 51 that depicted the helical anatomy of DNA. Yet, her work was stolen without her knowledge by another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, who proceeded to share it with Watson and Crick. The photograph aided the duo in their model of DNA. They received a Nobel Prize for their work, whereas Franklin received nothing but a brief comment at the end of their published article which attributed her as having “stimulated” them. Franklin didn’t obtain acknowledgement for her work until long after her death. 

The prejudice aspiring scientific women faced in history in many ways still persists today. A prime example of gender prejudice in STEM fields is demonstrated by none other than this year’s Nobel Prize winners in the categories of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine in which not a single female earned a Nobel Prize for the sciences. For a prestigious international organization that awards remarkable and influential researchers around the world, this clearly represents the gender bias affecting the globe today.

Women have continuously been under-recognized for their scientific research and discoveries. In fact, in the past 118 years, only 20 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the categories of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, according to an analysis by UN Women.

“I could bore you with tales of the myriad of ways I’ve been passed over, had my work stolen from me, been threatened personally, been stymied by peers, colleagues, bosses – pretty much anyone you can think of has in one way or another tried to slow me down – or in the worst-case scenario has actually tried to get me fired from my job,” Dr. Tamitha Skov, a prominent and nationally recognized space weather physicist, professed to The Torch. 

Even OH AICE Marine Science teacher Ms. Heather Jewett has been exposed to gender discrimination as a female in the male dominated field of biology. She explains how when she was a graduate student, she applied for a summer internship which happened to be at a remote location in the woods. The men leading the interviews were single, doctorate students around her age. “I was engaged to be married at the time and when I asked about the lodging arrangements they brought up the fact that my fiance wouldn’t be able to come visit.” She discloses, “That was not what my question was even remotely about, but they felt the need to bring that to my attention and I ultimately wasn’t offered the internship even though I had all the qualifications.”

On the other hand, Ms. Nimmi, a native of India, was shocked to find the gender gap between men and women found in STEM careers and schools when she immigrated to the U.S. She explains how in India men and women are treated equally when it comes to careers such as doctors and engineers. “It took me a few years after I moved into this country to actually realize that there was a gender disparity, and that people believe that women are not smart.” She explains, “Teaching an engineering class of just two to three girls took some time to sink in because my background taught me that men and women were equal.”  

Skov can also attest to this gender discrepancy. She elucidates how in her generation this problem is mainly cultural because, according to her, “it’s been ingrained and normalized in our culture that women should not participate in scientific fields, particularly in the physical sciences. This isn’t based on any logical rationale, it’s just ‘not what women do.’” 

Comparably, OH Junior Katherine Marrero, who is currently in OH’s Engineering Academy, AP Computer Science A, and AP Physics can also confirm  these feelings of isolation women face on a general basis in STEM related fields, revealing that it feels “awkward” when she goes into supply stores such as Home Depot to purchase supplies for her projects, and that men give her weird looks. Additionally, she also elaborates how her friend, who is also in the Engineering Academy, was condescended to by a Home Depot employee who told her that “she shouldn’t be there” because what she had purchased was “dangerous” and “she could get hurt.” These words reflect the ever-present stigma that women are fragile and must be protected by men. 

The study, “Staying Power: Women in Science on What it Takes to Succeed,” also provides further evidence into the sources for the lack of women in STEM still prevalent today. According to the study, 91 percent of respondents admitted that gender discrimination persists to be a career obstacle. An astonishing 100 percent of interviewees expressed that “self doubt” and a “lack of confidence” stand in their way.

Similarly, Ms. Nimmi agrees in that regard as she expresses, “Boys come into high school saying, ‘I want to be an engineer’ or ‘I want to be a computer scientist,’ whereas the girls coming in are unsure about what they want to do.” She also adds, “By the time they wake up in their junior and senior years, they feel it’s too late, or they’ll have to do the ‘catch-up game’ in college.” 

 To confront this, one step to raise the amount of women involved in STEM fields would be to give women an outlet that allows them to understand that gender discrimination does exist and that it has nothing to do with their intellectual abilities but rather, whether they are a man or a woman. Skov concurs with that statement, asserting,“If we arm young women, who enter these fields, with the understanding that any unfair treatment is not due to them or their capacity to excel, it’s actually due to a very pernicious kind of discrimination that is very covert and normalized by society, this will help protect them from a degenerating sense of confidence in themselves.”

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. If there are more women participating in STEM careers then perhaps there wouldn’t be this fear of harassment or feelings of isolation found widespread among prospective women scientists. It is also important that schools encourage STEM for their female student bodies, and provide opportunities for female students to receive hands on experiences. By seeing role models, and by becoming educated about the different career paths open to them, we should see an augmentation in the number of women in these fields. 

Both Ms. Nimmi and Jewett agree in this regard as they both elaborate how it is necessary for young girls to be introduced to the STEM related opportunities locally around them. For female biological science interestees, Jewett believes they should be exposed to seeing other women “in action on the job” by visiting local facilities such as FAU, Scripps, and FPL.  

In fact, annually for the past five years, the OH Engineering Academy has hosted GET Day (Girl Engineers of Tomorrow) in which local eighth grade female students visit the school and are presented about what engineering and computer science is, in an effort to encourage more future women engineers. One of the members of the female group that organized this year’s event, which took place on December 2, is Senior Technical/ Vocational Pathfinder Sophia Keane, who is also representing the OH Engineering Academy at the annual Palm Beach Post Pathfinder Awards in May. While she has never personally felt doubt in her abilities in any of her STEM courses (including AP Computer Science A, AP Computer Science Principles, Engineering Academy classes, and AP Calculus BC), she attributes her feelings of self confidence to her involvement in GET day, claiming, “It is inspiring to be able to work with other girls who have an interest in STEM. We definitely motivate each other to be confident in our abilities in these classes.”

 More events and programs such as these should be more heavily advertised within both middle schools and high schools, especially here at OH. “Awareness and confidence for girls I think might be the key,” Ms. Nimmi adds. 

As for advice for the future generation of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians; don’t let anyone or anything keep you from achieving your dreams. If you are passionate about something, then go for it, even if others believe you are not capable. You are strong, intelligent, and brave. You are a woman.


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