#DistractinglySexy: Why Women In STEM Fields Matter
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Politics and Activism

#DistractinglySexy: Why Women In STEM Fields Matter

An examination of why fewer women enter STEM careers, why it matters, and how we can improve.

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#DistractinglySexy: Why Women In STEM Fields Matter

Last week, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt effectively ended his own academic career by making the sexist statement, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” Female scientists have been understandably frustrated by his remarks, and have responded by creating #distractinglysexy, which is filled with (rather hilarious) tweets of women working in the lab and in the field in ultra-flattering lab coats, dry suits, and biohazard gear.

While the shallow media coverage of the Tim Hunt vs. female scientists saga is entertaining, it fails to comprehensively examine the role of women in science and the challenges they face.

Why don’t girls choose science careers?

It is widely acknowledged that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are male dominated. There are many reasons why young girls do not pursue science, but it is not due to lack of interest or aptitude. Studies have shown that female students are high achieving in science and math, despite low entry rates into STEM careers, and that young girls and boys are equally interested in science until outside factors begin to influence their paths.

The reasons young girls seem to be turned off of science were outlined in a 2014 New York Times article by physicist Eileen Pollack:

  • Teasing: Many of the graduate students Pollack spoke with had experienced opposition from both classmates and teachers at a young age. Studies have shown that science teachers tend to favor their male students and pay more attention them in class.
  • Stereotypes: Gender stereotypes are evident from a young age. Companies market pretend kitchens, mini ovens, and fashion dolls to young girls, while boys play with tools, build giant contraptions out of legos, and race cars. TV shows and movies depict female scientists and science students as nerdy and awkward. While there are exceptions, females characters in STEM are generally walking stereotypes.
  • A lack of mentorship: While mentorship could counteract the media culture that deters women from science, Pollack and many of the students she spoke to felt that they did not receive enough encouragement from faculty. Female students who received Bs thought their grades weren't good enough to continue in science while male students receiving Cs were told to encouraged to apply to graduate school.
  • Bias and marginalization: Women in STEM are frequently paid less than their male counterparts, are often passed over for promotions despite similar levels of experience. Female job applicants are perceived as less competent by both male and female professors, likely due to unconscious bias created by systemic promotion of male scientists over women.
  • Childcare: Women in science are often looked at as “mothers” rather than as leaders, and taking a reasonable amount of time off of work to recover from childbirth is often seen as an undue burden on a company.

Is the lack of women in STEM fields actually damaging?

In short, yes. The most obvious reason is that if women and men have an equal aptitude for math and science (as research shows) then by losing so many women from STEM fields, we lose the talent and creativity of half the population. What many people don't know is that the lack of women in science has actually been negative for women's health. The hormonal fluctuations in female subjects (human and animal) were previously regarded as too variable to study so most experiments are traditionally conducted on male subjects. As a result, recommendations for drug dosage have been made for both males and females based only on research done on only male subjects. This led to females suffering disproportionately more side effects from prescription drugs. The National Institutes of Health recently correcting this, but for years scientists avoided examining the single-largest variable between test subjects. Another result of research favoring male subjects is that many women died from cardiac events after being sent home from emergency rooms because doctors did not realize that women present with different symptoms than men. Research has also shown that because of a lack of understanding of diseases that specifically affect women, such as those having to do with the menstrual cycle, women who present with chronic pain are more often told that their symptoms are psychosomatic and sent home, while males with chronic pain are far more likely to be treated and given pain medications. Taking gender into account can improve quality of life for women and increase creativity and innovation in all fields.

How can we encourage more women to work in STEM fields?

Encouraging females to enter science has to take place at all levels. Young girls need better role models. High powered women in science like Marvel character Jane Foster are a start, but there are not enough of them. The media frequently confuses "smart" with unattractive, nerdy, and boring, and this is not an acceptable image to present to students. The Big Bang Theory character Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler is as frumpy and socially awkward as they come, but few know that Mayim Bialik, the actress who portrays her, is actually a neuroscientist and mother who balances her academic and acting careers and is completely socially functional, unlike her character. In addition, companies need to continue to expand on toy lines that promote creativity and science skills in both genders, and discontinue toy lines that promote the idea that young girls are not well suited for STEM careers.

Teachers and professors need to examine their own subconscious biases and ensure that they are treating male and female students equally. Many of my math and science teachers in high school were female, and all of them made it abundantly clear that both their male and female students had the potential to succeed whatever career they choose. This was a huge boost when I chose to study science in college, and the continuing support of my professors has helped me to decide with confidence to pursue a career in research.

Employers also need to do their part in promoting gender equality in science. Starting salaries for all genders should be equal for the same positions and gender should not be a factor in deciding who is promoted, published, given lab space, or receives funding. Additionally, the potential that someone may produce a child should not be seen as a burden. Treating mothers as ineffective employees is a disservice to both them and society, which literally could not continue without them. While raising a child takes considerable time and effort, it should not be assumed that a) a mother will be caring for their child without help, or b) that having a child makes them incompetent. Both mothers and fathers should be entitled to paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child and have access to affordable childcare services. Promoting the health of families increases the employee satisfaction and productivity, so the benefits to corporations do outweigh the costs. My own mom just recently graduated with her Masters, which she earned while working full time as a nurse and with my dad to take care of me, my sister, and our 5 year old brother. During that time she improved her leadership skills and effectively managed the nursing staff at an outpatient oncology clinic. "Mother" and "leader" are not exclusive terms and should not be treated as such.

By improving perceptions of women in science, encouraging young girls and female students to explore all of their options, and providing women in STEM careers with the same opportunities as their male colleagues, we can bring a whole new pool of talent to the STEM community, and promote innovation in research and technology that will benefit society as a whole.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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