Bridging the Gender Gap in STEM
The gender equality movement has undoubtedly accomplished a lot over the course of the last century, ranging from voting rights to better access to education. Nevertheless, gender disparity persists in certain domains of public and private life, and women are particularly underrepresented in the rapidly growing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field. Since no biological differences between men and women can explain this gap, it is necessary to implement measures to combat the sociocultural forces that discourage women from entering STEM careers.
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The gender gap in the STEM industry in the United States is quite significant. Even though women account for nearly half of the total workforce in the country, they occupy only 24 percent of STEM jobs. Moreover, this share remained constant over the course of the last decade, even though the percentage of female workers has gone up by 1 percent (Beede et al., 2011, p. 2). At the university level, fewer women choose to study the STEM subjects: approximately 73 percent of STEM degree-holders are male (Beede et al., 2011, p. 5).
Moreover, even those women who have a STEM degree do not choose to pursue a career in research and innovation – rather, they opt out for education and healthcare careers (Beede et al., 2011, p. 6). These statistics clearly signal women’s underrepresentation in the STEM field, which is significant not only for gender parity but also for economic development: the untapped potential of nearly half of the US labor force can result in slower technological development. Moreover, since the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs compared to non-STEM occupations, employing more women in the STEM field can help bridge the overall wage gap in the society (Beede et al., 2011, p. 7).
While some may argue that women are not apt for the task as they lack the necessary math and spatial skills, the existing research provides no evidence that biological factors account for the gender gap in STEM. Most of these skills are acquired rather than inherited, so the real cause of the discrepancy is the adequacy of training provided to men and women (Ceci, Williams & Barnett, 2009). In general, men are indeed more likely to score in the high math-proficient range on quantitative sections of the standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE (Ceci et al., 2009, p. 254).
Consequently, as these examinations are the so-called “gatekeeper” tests – that is, insufficiently high results prevent an individual from entering a particular field – less women can choose a STEM career (Ceci et al., 2009, p. 255). At the same time, Ceci et al. (2009) attribute the differences in test results between men and women to sociocultural rather than biological causes – for instance, teachers encourage a problem-solving approach in boys while the girls are usually given much more direction and guidance.
The common argument against affirmative action in STEM is that since there are no tangible barriers for women to enter the STEM field, it is thus a matter of their choice which should be respected (Stewart-Williams, 2013). The main premise is that women, in general, have different professional interests and career preferences, and they are thus simply not interested in STEM careers. The argument goes further to claim that women’s priorities, such as flexibility and autonomy, are incompatible with the requirements of the STEM occupations.
Consequently, any attempt to change the female-male ratio in the STEM field is a social engineering project that would result in an artificial distribution of jobs in the society (Stewart-Williams, 2013, par. 3). In such a case, math-proficient women are pressured to pursue careers in the STEM field regardless of their actual interests. While this idea deserves some merit as individual choices should indeed be respected, it nevertheless ignores the subtle yet important dimensions of contemporary gender-related issues.
The main flaw with this argument is its assumption that choices are always free of external influence or even pressure. In the perfect world, the gender gap would be explained by individual preferences, but in reality, women face stereotyping and discrimination, even if implicit, and are subject to misrepresentation in the popular culture which portrays female programmers as “geeky” and unattractive (Huhman, 2012, par. 7).
In other words, their choices are not free but constrained (Ceci et al., 2009). Interestingly enough, the opponents of affirmative action argue that math-proficient women are forced into STEM careers – meaning that it was not their free choice. Thus, they recognize the importance of peer pressure and other external influential forces. The same argument applies to other domains – for instance, that women are pressured into being mothers and have to consequently abandon their time-consuming careers. Having no STEM role models, women do not consider the field a viable career option (Huhman, 2012).
To sum up, affirmative action in the STEM field aims to eradicate the existing social preconceptions and stereotypes about men and women. It thus will not be of detriment to the society since it does not mean that unqualified workers would occupy certain positions by the virtue of their gender. Rather, affirmative action is about creating a constraint and bias-free environment for individuals to make their choices.
Beede, D., Julian, T., Langdon, D., McKittrick, G., Khan, B., & Doms, M. (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation. Web.
Ceci, S.J., Williams, W.M., & Barnett, S.M. (2009). Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 218-261.
Huhman, H.R. (2012). STEM fields and the gender gap: Where are the women? Web.
Stewart-Williams, S. (2013). Affirmative action for women in science? [Blog post]. Web.