The lack of female representation in STEM is a multifaceted issue with multiple effective approaches. The two approaches that I am passionate about are eliminating sexism in the workplace and challenging gender stereotypes about STEM.
Sexism in the workplace can have detrimental effects. Lower job satisfaction, self-objectification, and impaired cognitive performance are effects of sexism that drive women away from STEM careers (Kuchynka et al., 2017). Though hostile expressions of sexism are usually condemned in the workplace, protective paternalism (protective attitudes under the belief that women are less capable) is more common, and has its own harms (Kuchynka et al., 2017).
A recent study found that women who frequently encountered protective paternalism in university STEM classrooms reported lower STEM major intentions and lower GPAs (Kuchynka et al., 2017). However, in women who strongly identified with STEM, the sexism had no effect (Kuchynka et al., 2017). Therefore, we can increase female STEM representation in two ways; we can create non-sexist work environments or moderate the effects of sexism by eliminating gender stereotypes.
Firstly, sexism can be combated through education. One solution is to push for workplace training programs that teach leaders how to recognize and eliminate both hostile sexism and protective paternalism. Creating a less toxic work environment will prevent women from leaving STEM jobs and allow them to move to leadership positions. One barrier to this solution is the high costs of training. It is a worthwhile investment, as increasing representation can offer new perspectives and increase productivity. Companies can also benefit from a better reputation with consumers. If government funding is made available, workplaces will be more likely to offer training. Nevertheless, it is our jobs, as activists, to pressure local politicians and companies towards this change.
Secondly, the negative effects of sexism can be moderated by increasing women’s identification with STEM. This is a popular approach that has been implemented in the form of summer camps, afterschool programs, books, and toys that empower young girls to explore STEM. While this is a step in the right direction, these resources need to be more accessible to girls from sexist households, whose parents may be reluctant to enrol them in these programs. It is important for girls to get support in their STEM endeavors, especially when it is discouraged at home. In order to truly break these gender stereotypes, we can modify the science and technology curriculum to have a greater focus on engineering and technology. This will ensure that all girls are given the opportunity to explore stereotypically masculine interests, such as programming and robotics. In addition, it would be helpful to add a section on prominent female STEM figures and their discoveries, to show young boys that STEM workers can be any gender.
In conclusion, we can make the journey to STEM easier for women by challenging gender stereotypes and controlling workplace sexism. The human race will be faced with new and unimaginably complex challenges in the future. We cannot afford to have gender be a barrier.