Looking around my fourth-year quantum physics class, I counted how many women were in the room. There were seven of us, making us exactly one-third of the twenty-one person class. Sounds a little lacking, right? Unfortunately, for a high-level science class, that statistic was actually quite strong. The American Physical Society estimates that only about 20% of undergraduate physics degrees are earned by women, so my class with its 33% female component was well above that.
Young girls are often dissuaded from STEM careers under the impression that science and math are often ‘subjects for the boys’, and that same stereotypes can persevere into high school and even college classrooms. Girls who stick with science and math all the way through secondary school are faced with dwindling numbers, unconscious bias from their peers, and self-doubt. It’s not easy to be the only girl in a class full of boys, especially when you are often perceived to be less competent in science and math by your peers, and also by your teachers.
Once, I had an exam in which part of the test was to work in groups to solve six questions. My group was entirely male, except for me. I remember being painfully aware of my outsider status in that moment; so much of my ability to focus was taken up by worrying that I was not able to contribute to the group as I should have been able to. This phenomenon is called stereotype threat. It’s a common social problem across any sort of marginalized group, occurring when someone is so stressed out about proving a stereotype wrong, that they end up inadvertently proving it right. For women in science specifically, stereotype threat causes girls, like me, to mess up questions or exams that they otherwise would have been able to complete with no problems. Not only does stereotype threat prove to others that old stereotypes are true, it also causes young women to doubt themselves even further.
Now, for the women who actually continue on in science, particularly into academia, they will continue to struggle with prejudices and systemic barriers. A study from Yale estimates women are not only less likely to get hired for STEM positions, but if hired, they will also make $4,000/year less than their male counterparts. In job interviews, even other women will be harsher to female applicants than male ones. Lack of hiring ends up becoming a lack of representation, where only 14% of physics professors are women.
AS A FEMALE IN A MALE DOMINATED FIELD, IT’S INCREDIBLY HARD TO BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL SUCCEED, IF YOU HARDLY EVER SEE SOMEONE ELSE DO IT.
What do we do to solve this? It’s not easy, but we need to keep pushing the boundaries of what is expected of women in science. We need to stop telling girls that certain subjects are ‘just for boys’. Each child, male or female, should be supported and inspired to follow their dreams, whether they choose to be a makeup artist or a theoretical physicist. We also need to continue to support girls as they make their way through high school and into post-secondary education. Young women need to hear that they are smart enough, driven enough, and worthy of respect in the workplace and in the classroom. Finally, we need to shut down the people perpetrating false tales about women in science. Just like women all over the world shut down Tim Hunt for his sexist comments about female scientists, we all need to make an effort to stand up for women in science, but also outside of it. It’s not easy to change a centuries-old culture, but it’s about time we step up and try.
Published on Unwritten, January 17, 2017.