A (Wo)man’s World: Tackling The Gender Gap in STEM Careers

By Julianna Ritzu

An average ACT score of 30, a selective enrollment cutoff score of 896 out of 900, and a course catalog that includes 26 Advanced Placement classes. Payton’s statistics look great on paper, and have become the reason why so many hopeful eighth graders from across Chicago apply to Payton each year despite the fact that only about 300 will be accepted. While these accolades are impressive and reflect the high value Payton places on providing a great education that is equal to all students, they don’t necessarily reflect the student experience, and more specifically, the female experience.

Twenty-four of all classes offered at Payton are considered to be STEM classes, ranging from chemistry to calculus to computer science, and every student, including every student who identifies as a woman, is enrolled in at least two STEM classes each year. While Payton provides exceptional support to women interested in pursuing STEM fields, the opportunities available to women to pursue STEM as a career are far less accessible.

American women comprise 50% of the college-educated workforce, but they only make up 29% of workers in STEM fields. Even more troubling, minority women constitute less than one in ten workers in science and engineering fields; these professions are overwhelmingly dominated by white men. It isn’t just a lack of representation that makes STEM seem so distant and inaccessible for woman interested in following this path; in many cases, there are barriers that actively deter them from doing so.

In 2015, a report released by the University of California, Hastings, revealed that one in three female science professors surveyed had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Additionally, over the past five years there have been a number of high profile resignations of male science professors at prestigious universities, such as University of Chicago and UCLA, over cases regarding sexual misconduct with female students.

The victim of these cases were specifically women who had been pursuing advanced degrees in science and were dependent on favorable recommendations from their college professors to be considered for positions in scientific fields after graduating.

Upon further investigation, an underlying theme emerges between each of these examples of sexism. The gender gap in STEM careers is severe, but this bias is not accidental; rather, it is perpetuated by the existing bias in American and global society that women are less proficient in areas of math, science, and technology, or the commonly heard phrase “Girls suck at math.” While Payton boasts a strong STEM curriculum and doesn’t have a significant gender gap between STEM education for students who identify as men and those who identify as women, there are still significant problems.

There are already these preconceived biases and being at Payton doesn’t mean they just disappear,” Yu Jing Chen ‘18 explains. “It feels like I’m representing women especially in STEM, and I feel like if I fail, people will think women aren’t capable. I feel like if I don’t step out of my comfort zone and speak up in a class or club, that I will be succumbing to the stereotype that men are the leaders, and women are too passive. Yet there’s still that line you have to carefully walk as a woman to not seem too bossy, which men don’t really face.”

Chen adds, “Sometimes, I see an overwhelmingly high amount of guys in a club or class that’s more challenging, such as Chess team, or KAM class and I wonder why. Often, I feel like it’s my responsibility to join to diffuse this unconscious bias that women don’t do these things, but it really isn’t my responsibility nor is it any other girl’s responsibility.”

Even in classes where there are an equal number of women, female students have experienced this bias. Christina Curry ‘18 says, “I often notice that when I answer a male student’s question in class, especially in STEM based classes, they either dismiss it or look to another male student for validation and if they have a different answer, take theirs over mine.”

Even in elementary schools, it has been shown that unconscious teacher bias contributes to discouragement of women from pursuing STEM careers. In 2014, a report was released that examined the score a student would earn on their math test and the possible correlation between the score earned and the gender of the student.

A group of Israeli students, whose ages ranged from sixth grade to twelfth grade, took a math exam, which was then scored by two different groups of people, first by outsiders who scored the exams without the names of the students appearing on the test, and then by the teachers of the students who scored the exams with the child’s name included on the test. The female students outscored the boys when the test was graded anonymously; however, when the test was graded by the teachers and included the student’s names, even though the answers were exactly the same, the male students did significantly better.

The problem with this bias and discrimination, whether it is intended or done unconsciously, is that it instills in women a belief that they are not good at these subjects, and that their opinions and thoughts are not valid when compared to those of their male peers. Additionally, it teaches girls that STEM jobs are not realistic, and that they will not be taken seriously if they wish to choose this career.

According to Annie Zhou ‘18, even though she feels no discrimination at school, she feels pressure from her parents. She adds, “My mom does tell me that being a girl in a STEM field is hard.”

Whether the pressure comes from their family, peers, teachers, or societal norms in general, the message is clear: Women have been led to believe that STEM careers are not a smart choice, a realistic choice, or a fulfilling choice, and that if a woman chooses to pursue a job in STEM, that she cannot expect to be treated equally or fairly when compared to her male counterparts.

But, what can our society, and specifically Payton, do to fix it? This norm has become ingrained in our society after generations of sexism, and it is up to us, if we wish to create a more intelligent, creative, and informed society, to fix it. How will we choose to respond?

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