In past posts where I have discussed STEM education, one of the key issues that I tackled was this idea of getting students interested in STEM. After a course in Women’s studies, however, I learned that although efforts in getting girls interested in STEM may increase their participation in these fields, it is certainly not the solution; other deeper societal changes much take place.

As many of you may know, careers in science, technology, engineering, and math are heavily male-dominated, and these careers are paid higher than female-dominated disciplines such as clerical work, teaching, and domestic work.  Why is this? Are boys just innately better at these subjects than girls? One may assume so considering the vast number of men than enter these fields, but what if there was another explanation? What if there was a system at work that kept girls and women from entering the sciences?

Science Textbooks

Science Textbooks
Image: Leigh Jay Temple via Flickr

Take the SAT for example. Girls tend to score 40 points under males on the SAT, as test that is designed to predict first year college grades. This is quite interesting because although girls’ scores in the SAT tend to by lower than boys, girls are earning better grades in college than boys. The fact that the SAT is a timed test and rewards guessing on multiple choice, plays to boy’s strengths. Not to mention, questions often refer to sports and other activities in which boy’s are “better at” than girls, possibly reducing girls’ self-esteem during these tests.

So what, boys tend to get higher scores on the SAT. Why does this matter? Higher scores in the SAT increase one’s chances of getting into college. This limits girls’ access to higher education that will help them reach a STEM profession.

Clearly STEM fields are not entirely comprised on men; there are a marginal percentage of women in these careers. But for these women, the struggle does not end there. Women in these fields are frequently harassed by their male colleagues, making them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at their jobs. Women often have to prove that they do better work than men, not equal work, in order to advance. Another barrier to women’s advancement in their careers is employer’s assumptions that women will at some point leave their careers to start a family. I recall one women’s story of sitting in her employer’s office as he told her that her promotion was given to another male colleague. She asked why and he pointed to her pregnant belly saying, “Well look at you.”

Lack of encouragement and support for girls to enter STEM fields cannot completely explain their limited presence in STEM careers. While inspiring women to pursue these subjects is crucial, the majority of efforts should work to end the sexism in our society.

Feature Image: George Joch / Argonne National Laboratory via Flickr