Commentary Human Rights

Sexism in STEM Starts Early—So We Must Combat It Early Too

Lizzie Fierro

With education and awareness, adults can help foster girls' participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects by taking steps to break down gender stereotypes—and, in turn, create a more equal workforce in the future.

Editor’s note: You can watch Lizzie chat about gender equality in STEM fields on Nick News here.

Lizzie Fierro is a high schooler in Austin, Texas, and is one of Rewire’s youth voices.

Enter “scientist” on any Internet image search engine. I’ll wait.

Now try “engineer.” And “mathematician,” too.

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What do the most popular results have in common? Notice anything strange?

Most of the people in the photos are middle-aged. Some of the images, particularly those of mathematicians, are simply faded black-and-white photos of long-deceased historical figures. The subjects are also, unsurprisingly, usually white.

And women consistently make up less than one-quarter of the first 16 results.

A Widening Gulf

Unfortunately, these search results are indicative of the typical gender disparity in real-world science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. The National Girls Collaborative Project reports, for instance, that women make up about 22 percent of chemical engineers in the American workforce—the highest number in all of the engineering fields. By contrast, only 5.5 percent of mechanical engineers are women. Meanwhile, according to the president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, Telle Whitney, only 20-to-23 percent of Silicon Valley tech workers are women.

And even when women do enter these typically high-paying industries, they often suffer from prejudice surrounding hiring and wage practices. For example, the National Academy of Sciences found in 2012 that faculty members hiring for a lab manager position rated men applicants more favorably than women ones, despite the women having the exact same credentials. In addition, the mean starting salary offered to the men was more than $3,500 higher than that offered to the women.

Clearly, women interested in pursuing STEM careers face numerous obstacles on a systemic level. However, they must also confront biases in individual relationships too. Although boys and girls show equal interest in STEM subjects until about the sixth to eighth grade, those numbers begin to tilt with age in favor of boys. This suggests that attitudes from teachers, parents, other authority figures, and even peers can contribute to this imbalance as early as primary school. Fortunately, with education and awareness, adults can help foster girls’ participation in STEM subjects by taking steps to increase their confidence and break down gender stereotypes—and, in turn, create a more equal workforce in the future.

Starting Early

I work at a children’s science museum, where every employee orientation includes the same search-engine activity presented at the beginning of this piece. As staff members, we discuss what it means to be a scientist, an engineer, or a mathematician, and how the pervasive, sexist stereotypes of each can affect children in American society.

The stereotypes of what STEM professionals “should” look like are so ingrained into our culture that most parents don’t even notice the differences in how they treat their sons and daughters. When the entire world looks a lot like those search-engine results to parents, they can often either consciously or subconsciously reproduce the same social norms in their children. So, in turn, girls who may be just as passionate about dissecting a squid or engineering a paper rocket as boys may eventually begin to confine themselves to explorations of history or literature instead. Of course, not all parents are overtly sexist toward their daughters’ interests in STEM subjects. But even those who fail to support young girls’ expressed curiosity about science or math contribute to a social dynamic that teaches young girls to pursue other topics.

While subjects like history or art are certainly noble pursuits, as a gallery educator at the museum whose job consists of facilitating activities and interpreting exhibits, I only had to see parents nudge their daughters toward a craft project over a science experiment two or three times to realize that women’s unequal participation in STEM subjects is a logical consequence of an entire childhood of conditioning. And as a result, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to minimize these microaggressions and close the gap between men and women in STEM subjects.

The museum makes heroic efforts toward such a goal: We offer girls-only engineering camps, sponsor events designed to introduce girls to STEM career prospects, and train all employees to recognize the sexism that pervades the scientific field and the early age that it begins. Officials also teach staff members ways to engage girls during museum-hosted activities. Simply valuing their ideas and allowing them the freedom to work on projects about STEM topics at their own pace can do wonders for girls’ enthusiasm; providing a safe environment in which adults prioritize their daughter’s explorations may greatly increase girls’ desire to pursue STEM subjects further.

However, when our students, who are generally 3-to-8 years old, leave the museum, they’ll continue to face ingrained misogyny from a number of fronts. Our anti-sexist efforts, after all, don’t continue in every household, and definitely not in every school. According to statistics compiled by the National Girls Collaborative Project, though female high school students take advanced math classes at similar rates to male students, those numbers plummet once young women reach university—suggesting that they face oppressive ideas as young girls and teenagers that emerge when they contemplate their future careers.

I see this trend taking place in my own life too. I’m still in high school, and each year that I take a more advanced math class, I see the number of girls enrolled dwindling. Meanwhile, my ability to relate to my men STEM teachers decreases, as does their support and encouragement toward me. For example, one instructor spent 20 minutes explaining a problem to a boy while telling me to look in the textbook about the same one; another teacher made assumptions about my future career path, presuming that I would not be interested in a STEM profession even though I’d never indicated a preference toward any particular field. These actions are subtle, but they still undermine the validity of my academic pursuits.

And I’m lucky, because I am passionate—about children, about equal opportunity, and about my own interest in math and science that I noticed shrinking as the people in my life began to guide me toward humanities. Not everyone has the same passion that I have. For that matter, many also do not have access to the information and strategies provided to me and my co-workers in our museum training. As such, a great number of people do not have the ability to combat microaggressions such as those pervading our homes and classrooms.

A Shift in the System

So we need awareness at a broader level. Those of us equipped with information about sexism in STEM need to teach the general public why girls should be encouraged to participate in STEM activities. We need these lessons to be consistently reinforced by adults in the children’s lives: parents, teachers, mentors, authority figures, and, of course, museum educators like me.

We must, too, put pressure on companies in the STEM industry to use their influence to battle sexism. Recently, Google invested $50 million in a coding education initiative for girls, Made With Code. This announcement came shortly after the company revealed that 83 percent of its tech employees are men.

Is 17 percent enough for a company with such reach? No. By making this disclosure and investing their money in this project, though, Google has acknowledged an issue that many companies refuse to touch on. Made With Code, aimed at high school girls, will not change the company’s employee ratio or the number of female professionals in STEM at Google. But the company is directing its initiative where the seed of interest takes root: youth. With hope, the girls of today will grow into the computer scientists—employed by Google and elsewhere—of tomorrow.

Working to abolish the attitudes and systems that make it difficult for girls to participate in STEM subjects early on will allow girls to gain more confidence and, eventually, higher leadership positions. Including more women may help to expose and resolve systems that are inherently sexist, such as the wage gap, or the practice of hiring men more often than women; it may also discourage sexist microaggressions in the workplace that discourage female applicants.

And having more women in STEM fields is important for the entire population, not just those in the industries. After all, men aren’t the only ones affected by policies enacted and popularized by science and technology. Increasing the participation of women in STEM careers, for example, would increase the pool of women experts available to rebut unscientific arguments often given by politicians to regulate abortion and contraception. Additionally, the current prejudiced idea that male subjects are the “average” in science would be expanded, which may help to make scientific research and discoveries safer for women. Recently, the National Institute of Health adopted policy that explicitly works toward the inclusion of females in scientific studies. We need more of this.

Perhaps if schools, individuals, and organizations across the country commit to combating misogyny, our scientists, our engineers, and our mathematicians will eventually defy the stereotype that even Google Images itself reinforces—proving that our STEM professionals do not have to be one age, one race, and certainly not one gender.

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