Sexism in STEM subjects is an ongoing problem

Gair Rhydd takes a look into ‘male dominated’ subjects and gender imbalances

In 1915, 100 years ago, hardly any women were even able to enter further education, never mind study science or enter science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) related professions. Today society still suffers an incredible gender imbalance in many STEM subjects, with far more men choosing to study some degree disciplines than their female counterparts.

Women face diversity in stereotypically ‘male’ fields. A study published earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review showed that on average two thirds of women in STEM fields have had to provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves, with additional bias depending on race.

Not only do women face inequalities within the STEM fields, but there are fewer women than men choosing to read the subjects at university. Dr Annabel Cartwright, a lecturer in Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, told Gair Rhydd, “Encouraging more female students to study physics is largely something that needs to happen in schools. Students who study physics A Level are likely to go on to study science, so we need to increase the number studying A Level.”

Organisations have attempted to encourage females to go into STEM fields. You may have seen the advert from Microsoft called ‘Girls do science’, where they talk to young girls about their interest in science. The ad claims that while 7 out of 10 girls are interested in science at a young age, only 2 out of 10 go on to pursue this interest. This ad has circulated the internet with over 2 million views on YouTube, proving to be popular and hopefully effective.

Unfortunately other adverts don’t hit the same mark. A film published by the European Commission described science as a “girl thing”. It’s more like a clip from America’s Next Top Model rather than a serious message, with generic beakers and test tubes and words like “hydrogen” interlaced with flashes of lipstick and nail polish, and models in big sunglasses. It’s pink, flashy and kind of degrading: a video trying to encourage women to study science is sexist and the irony of that is astounding.

They dumbed down science and tried to compare it to stereotypically ‘girly’ things. There is a way to reach out to women, and that is not the way to do it.

There have been some outrageous stories of ‘#EverydaySexism’ that female scientists and STEM subject students have told. It really doesn’t encourage women to go on to work in science if they’re going to be met there with sexist remarks and bullying comments. Just this year, the University of Bristol was in the public eye with women coming forward to tell of their experiences. There were reports of lecturers being surprised that the female students had performed better than the males. More than half of female students reading science subjects said that they have felt uncomfortable at the institution because of their gender in a survey from the Students’ Union.

It’s not just blatant sexism that is a problem when it comes to gender balance, but also inherent social prejudices. In a recent study from Yale University, scientists were given an application from a student applying for a lab manager position. All of them were given the same application, but half had it with a male name attached, while the other half were given it with a female name. The results were astounding as the participants rated the application with a female name much lower than the male, giving a lower rating out of five in competence, employability and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.

Despite the shortcomings in certain campaigns and the ongoing sexism in STEM workplaces, there have been some improvements in gender balance in recent years. In Cardiff University, the School of Mathematics was awarded Athena SWAN bronze award in recognition of its commitment to advancing the careers of women in academia.

There are certain STEM subjects in particular that seem to attract more women. An admissions tutor from the School of Biosciences in Cardiff University claimed that approximately 60 per cent of their full time students this year are women.

Conversely, physics seems to be the least popular of the STEM disciplines we reviewed: in Cardiff University there is an average of only 19 per cent being female in the past few years.

The National Assembly for Wales’ Enterprise and Business Committee had an answer for why there is such a gap between the number of women taking up physics-based degrees and those going into bioscience. They talked to some female STEM students, and they considered physics to be “really boring”, and that they thought being in a male-dominated physics class could be “a little scary”.

It’s interesting to notice, as the Institute of Physics uncovered, that all-girls schools produce a higher proportion of A-Level physicists.

There are things to be done to improve numbers of women in STEM degree disciplines, and with the added disadvantage of a social bias, special care must be taken. What is clear is that action must be taken early on, so that young girls continue to fuel their passion for science right through to A Level, and into their higher education.


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