A brief article provides insufficient
space to fully consider the intersecting
cultural and social factors accounting for women’s underrepresentation
in STEM fields, particularly at senior
levels. These factors include gendered
expectations about the abilities and
interests of men and women; the degree to which women are encouraged
to consider scientific and academic
careers; women’s access to role-models
and mentors; the climate women experience as students and faculty; the role
of bias in hiring, promotions, salary,
and resource allocations; and the extent to which departments and institutions support work-life balance. Here
we will focus on gendered expectations
about women’s abilities and interests,
and, particularly, on how these expectations clash with our assumptions
and stereotypes about STEM and those
who work in STEM fields.
RESEARCH ON GENDERED
Decades of research demonstrate
that both men and women associate
specific traits and social roles with
males and females. Despite women’s
increased participation in the workplace, we associate men with work and
careers, and women with family and
home. We describe men as aggressive, independent, ambitious, and rational; and women as nice, nurturing,
dependent, and emotional [
13]. We assume men are good at and interested
in math and science, and women have
good verbal skills and are interested
in caring, nurturing professions. Research demonstrates that whether or
not we endorse these assumptions or
stereotypes about men and women,
their prevalence in our society leads us
to evaluate women as less competent
and capable in domains typically associated with or pursued by men [ 14].
Though women have always been
involved in scientific work, science
and engineering have long been male-
dominated fields and our society views
them as masculine domains. This view
is reflected in our stereotypes about
scientists, which have remained sur-
prisingly constant since 1957 when
Mead and Métraux asked high school
students to write a paragraph describ-
ing a scientist. Students described a
“man who wears a white coat … works
in a laboratory ... wears glasses … is
surrounded by test tubes, Bunsen
burners, flasks, [and] glass tubes”[ 15].
The Draw-a-Scientist Test—first imple-
mented in 1983 on elementary school
children and subsequently on other
populations including school teach-
ers and undergraduate science stu-
dents—shows that when asked to draw
a scientist at work, most people draw a
man that closely matches the descrip-
tion from 1957 [ 16]. Finally, a more re-
cently developed test, the Implicit As-
sociation Test (IAT), which measures
the strength of associations between
categories, shows that approximately
70 percent of more than half a million
men and women from 34 countries as-
sociate men with science and women
with liberal arts disciplines [ 17].
Abundant research demonstrates
that these assumptions about science
and engineering, together with assumptions about women and gender,
have a powerful influence on the advice
parents, teachers, and counselors give
to girls and women regarding courses
Mathematics and Statistics Chemistry Physics
Astronomy Computer Science Engineering
Figure 3: Percentage of women Ph.D. recipients in the U. S., selected STEM disciplines, 1966-2009.
Source: NSF, WebCASPAR ( https://webcaspar.nsf.gov).
Asst. Prof. Assoc. Prof. Full Prof.
Figure 4: Percentage of women PhDs and faculty, top 100 U. S. departments in
selected S TEM disciplines, 2007.
Source (Faculty data): “Nelson Diversity Surveys,” 2007; Source (PhD data): NSF, WebCASPAR (https://webcaspar.nsf.
gov) *All disciplines except astronomy are the top “100” departments as ranked by NSF according to research expenditures
in that discipline. Only 40 astronomy departments are ranked by NSF. Departments are identified at http://faculty-staff.