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Programs meant to encourage women in STEM may be backfiring — because it's not women who need to change

New study finds that women in STEM tend to stick it out, but the field still suffers from pervasive sexism


Amanda Marcotte
August 30, 2017 8:59AM (UTC)

Most discussions around the dearth of women in STEM careers and education -- the acronym stands for "science, technology, engineering and math" -- focus on women themselves as the problem: Women and girls, the argument goes, don't apply for STEM programs, don't show interest in STEM at a young age, and often get discouraged and drop out, either during college or in the field.

To be clear, most of these discussions blame the problem on society at large, which clearly discourages young women from seeing themselves as engineers, scientists or mathematicians. Still, the focus on women's individual choices, intentionally or otherwise, suggests that the solution to this gender disparity is for women themselves to tough it out and overcome inequality through force of will.

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The problem with that, as researchers from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University have found, is that women are already working hard to get careers in STEM — and that it takes a surprising amount of pressure to keep them out. Even more disturbingly, their research suggests that some efforts to encourage women to take up STEM majors may backfire by inadvertently reinforcing female students' fears that women are an unwanted minority in these fields.

In a paper titled "Choice of Majors: Are Women Really Different from Men?", published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers looked at what drove women who started out as STEM majors to change paths. Women were not deterred by discovering that most of their classmates or faculty members were men. They were not deterred by stereotypes that paint STEM fields as masculine endeavors. They were no more likely than men to change majors if they got low grades.

No, in order to run women off from certain majors, all three of these things had to be in place.

"You need triple signals. You need to be told in various ways you don’t belong here," explained Adriana Kugler, the paper's lead author. 

Kugler is a professor of public policy and worked as the chief economist for the Department of Labor for two years during the Obama administration. She was surprised to find out that there's more interest from women in STEM fields than she and her team expected.

There are a lot of STEM majors where women outnumber men, Kugler discovered, and many others where gender ratios are fairly equal. Only a few are truly male-dominated. Even when young women enter a major and find most of their classmates are men, they tend to "stick it out," she added. It's only when they are in a major such as math or engineering, which are commonly understood as "masculine," that being outnumbered affects women. Even then, they still need lower grades before they cave into the social stereotypes that women just aren't good at certain careers. Men who get lower grades, however, are more likely to hang in there, because no one is telling them (either consciously or otherwise) that their gender prevents them from being able to do this work. 

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"Women are incredibly resilient," Kugler explained. "It takes society telling them over and over again, and their environment telling them over and over again, that they’re not good at something to scare women away from it.”

Many organizations have tried to address the dearth of women in certain science and technology sectors with programs specifically encouraging women to pursue STEM majors. These programs are well-meaning, Kugler argued, but they often end up suggesting to women that "they belong to a stigmatized group" and reinforcing "the message that these are masculine fields." 

While men "may not have a natural ability advantage in STEM fields," the paper's authors write, "the numerous government and other policy initiatives designed to get women interested in STEM fields may have the unintended effect of signaling to women an inherent lack of fit."

In other words, getting a pamphlet that says, "Women can do engineering too!" may, perversely enough, remind women of the very stereotype the pamphlet is trying to counter.

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It's counterintuitive, but the answer to getting more women into STEM might require putting less emphasis on the "women" part and more on the "STEM" part. Kugler suggested that governments and schools could start by working more to inform all students, regardless of gender, about the personal and professional benefits of careers in STEM.

While focusing on gender when speaking to students can backfire, it doesn't mean abandoning a gender analysis of the problem altogether. Instead, Kugler said, schools and governments should shift from trying to push women on an individual level to work harder and instead look at systemic changes that could help reduce the number of obstacles facing women who want STEM careers.

"Making the fields more welcoming to women" is extremely important, Kugler argued.

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That requires more than simply imploring women to major in math or science, but instead taking a hard look at the ways that the men in these fields may signal to women that they aren't welcome. For instance, as Joan Williams and Kate Massinger at The Atlantic explained in 2016, sexual harassment is a widespread problem in STEM fields. Dealing with men who deliberately make women feel unwelcome by singling them out for gendered abuse or inappropriate come-ons might do more to ease women's worries about entering the science fields than a million "You, too, can do math!" booklets.

"Equal pay for equal work is going to be very, very important," Kugler added, noting the research that shows that the more women move into male-dominated fields, the more pay drops. Such a policy shift would require more intervention from the government to prevent this kind of discrimination, which does not seem likely under the current administration. 

These solutions are not individual, Kugler said, and they avoid "blaming the victim" for sexist structures that hold them back. They are also more likely to be effective, because, as Kugler's research shows, the problem was never really about women in the first place. Women are tough and willing to put up with a lot. But they aren't superheroes, and they shouldn't have to be in order to pursue careers that have traditionally been dominated by men.

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Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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