Why Do We Need Women in STEM Fields?

February 28, 2011

Each month this year, AAUW teams up with Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading science publishers, in an online forum on women in science. The AAUW posts highlight findings from our 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, now in its third printing.

This is a question that comes up pretty regularly. Here is one answer.

Attracting and retaining more women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time, and engineers design many of the things we use daily. When women are not involved in science and engineering, experiences, needs, and desires that are unique to women may be overlooked.

For example, Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing discusses the fact that “some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard. … Similar cases are found in many other industries. For instance, a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children” (Margolis & Fisher, 2002, pp. 2-3).

With a more diverse workforce, scientific and technological products, services, and solutions are likely to be better designed and more likely to represent all users, and the direction of scientific inquiry will be guided by a broader array of experiences.

Why do you think it is important to have women in STEM fields?

See the original post and take a poll on Scitable at nature.com.

By:   |   February 28, 2011

2 Comments

  1. eleanor roberts says:

    STEM fields demand the best and the brightest — by inserting subjective “the [male] face fits” criteria into the mix (or, more perniciously the “what if she gets pregnant?” outrageously sexist assumptions into the mix) these fields — in academic, entrepreneurial and industrial settings — excludes half of the best and brightest.

    I still don’t know why no-one in the media can seem to make the link between this lack of objective measures of worth and contribution in STEM fields and Americans’ unwillingness to participate in them, and the consequent decline in American industrial innovation.

    But then, the media also seem to leap on any pseudo-scientific study that even vaguely suggests innate differences in male and female cognition — and when those studies are roundly debunked, the media simply fail to report. Cordelia Fine has written a stunning book on the topic, Delusions of Gender, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Another problem with American academic and business leaders’ apparent inability to be fair and objective when it comes to evaluating scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists’ contributions is that — for people who have observed real unfairness first-hand — it reduces our respect for those leaders, and for those institutions.

    For people who have not observed it first-hand, it nullifies the worth of a lone woman’s struggle to have been “worth it” in at least effecting change: it is assumed that the subjective valuations of those with power are objective, and any setbacks are attributed to the woman just not being good enough, thus making it more difficult for other women in future. The winner writes the herstory, and it’s not her story.

    When senior faculty and business leaders are seen to be cavorting with their female proteges on field expeditions or at conferences, and then promoting those women over more accomplished but less sexually available men and women, this becomes both a problem for all other women in the field (who are both passed over, assumed to have gotten where they are by dubious means, and then harassed because of that assumption — at the same time!) it both divides women from each other, so that we have a harder time speaking up for our common interests, and demeans us all. And it is our lack of numbers in these “hard science” fields that makes it so easy for Professor Goodfella to pit Sally against Sue when they’re literally the only two women in that organization in technical or research roles.

    The unfair exclusion of women from fields which require objective judgment and keen powers of analysis reinforces the stereotype that we are simple, emotional creatures. This is damaging to all women, poor single women supporting children in particular, who are consequently relegated to positions with lower pay, and scant opportunities for promotion or advancement.

    The consequent denigration across the board — in all fields, in all jobs — harms our ability to obtain reproductive justice, health treatment, and fair treatment in the courts when violently abused. When a girl’s upbringing is scarred by violence, poverty and abuse, this significantly reduces her ability to stand up for herself when encountering discrimination later on in life.

    There’s not exactly a war chest to go years (or decades) unemployed and unemployable, paying lawyers the whole time in a discrimination case, when the taxes on the family home are going unpaid, for example. So, we need to keep our mouths shut and just keep working, lest we see our brothers and sisters go homeless as well as hungry and dressed in rags.

    The only women who can afford to push back the tide of discrimination are wealthy women — who can also afford to quit work, spend more time at home with the kids and laugh it off. And yet it is those of us who must continue to work, however reduced our role (technical writing, QA), who are actually blamed for not speaking up for ourselves, not “negotiating”, not asking for raises — when we know full well the consequences of those actions in real life (hint: it starts with a U and it’s not University). We are the ones who cannot afford to even have children, when, for example, we are denied maternity medical benefits or anything resembling a living income as grad students, postdocs, untenured faculty, or contract employees throughout our childbearing years.

    So, not only are the benefits of more women in STEM fields more complex than just being able to design a mousetrap even a woman can set, it is also true that overcoming the barriers to full inclusion of the best and the brightest — whatever our gender, class background or minority status– is also more complex task than just giving us assertiveness training, gender-ring-fenced science grants or having special educational programs to inspire K-12 girls.

    Laudable as these efforts are, I think the main barrier to equality is not our training, not our inspiration, not our assertiveness, not our “vision”, not our character, not our “lack of dedication to our professional goals”, but rather: ongoing discriminatory treatment at all levels, the the accumulation of disadvantages small and large throughout our careers, and the lack of any economically feasible redress at each turn of the screw. Compounding this are the attacks on the K-12 teaching profession (mostly women — “No Child Left Behind” would be more aptly named “No Teacher Left Standing”) the attacks on their unions, the reduction in welfare, and the reduction in benefits to the elderly (we all have parents to support… if we’re lucky enough for them to still be with us).

    Students going into engineering, in particular, are often from working-class backgrounds, due to our familiarity with the industrial and building trades. Yet these are the families under the most severe economic duress today, and are having every hope of even sending their children to college taken away by these attacks on the working class. And, these are the families least able to support their daughters when they are discriminated against.

    My friend in graduate school was being sexually harassed by a faculty member at one point. I asked her what she did about it. She said she called her father, who was a distinguished faculty member at a similarly-ranked university. He called the department, and it promptly ended. Could my father, or my father’s union rep have been as persuasive? I somehow doubt it — unless they had become very persuasive indeed, possibly with the aid of a pipewrench.

    My father did not finish the 8th grade, but he did teach me basic thermodynamics, algebra and trigonometry out of his apprenticeship books, when I was in grade school and he was going through his own apprenticeship. It literally did not occur to me to call my father when I had been sexually harassed — I’d been on my own since I was 17 and putting myself through engineering school working as a computer programmer. Oh, maybe he could have written the dean a stern letter — in his block capitol letters with a flat carpenters’ pencil sharpened with a penknife, and multiple misspellings. That would have shown ’em. Yeah, right.

    Class issues aside, Title IX and Title VII have been on the books for nearly 40 years, and are largely ignored by academic institutions, engineering firms, software houses and research organizations largely because the enforcement regime is — quite frankly — a joke. People still think Title IX is just for sport.

    The current enforcement regime requires engaging in a legal war of attrition against institutions with very deep pockets and much bigger reputations to defend — and what woman can afford to even attempt to overturn one career setback in exchange for being blacklisted for the rest of her life? Some do, with the help of AAUW, thank heavens. I will cheer on every case that goes forward, because someone is doing something that I, for all my advanced education and unrealized potential, simply cannot risk.

    For universities, in particular, to continue to engage in discriminatory practices and policies is utterly disgraceful. The only reason I maintain contact with my alumni organizations (Cornell, Chicago and Harvard) is to let them know, every time they ask for money, why they’re not getting any from me — sometimes with a great bit of detail. I wish science and engineering alumnae across the nation would do this, and pledge instead to the AAUW LAF and tell their institutions so.

  2. Geraldine (Gerry) Linton says:

    I spent 18 years as the Director of a small agency that did career and entrepreneurial counseling primarily for women. Many were divorced, widowed or separated. I was a divorced woman receiving no child support and knew what it was like to struggle. Opening up options for young women and girls to enter careers that offer a self-sustaining salary is vital. Too many women end up with limited options because they are unaware of the trend in careers and the ways of entering them.

    I am the STEM Program Chair for the St. Augustine Branch and have devised a 3 pronged approach for middle school girls and their families. The 1st was a panel discussion on STEM Careers by 3 women who are doing it. The 2nd was the purchase of a computerized astronomy program presented to a mixed racial and socioeconomic populated school and the 3rd will be a conference for girls and their parents or guardians in early Fall. Their will be hands on activities, panel discussion and a workshop for the girls on career choices while parents go to one on how to be supportive of their children regarding career choices. I will be trying for grants to have a light supper for attendees and giveaways for the girl’s to make this a memorable happening.

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