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July 16 2018

The Secret Reason More Women Don't Opt for STEM Fields

by Charlotte Hays

Quote of the Day:

Women are vitally important to STEM. Professors outside these disciplines should stop mischaracterizing to poach the best students, who are often women.

--Engineering Professor Barbara Oakley in today's Wall Street journal


Despite the push to get women go into STEM fields, it's still the case that not as many women as men pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

A female engineering professor argues that it's neither discrimination against women nor a difference in aptitudes.

 The fault lies in STEM's lousy reputation, according to Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

STEM fields are often seen as being dull and relying or relying on "rote" work. Women gravitate towards the creative.

Oakley says her field is maligned by professors who regard themselves as more creative (and who, by the way, also want to persuade women to major in their subjects instead):    

My colleagues in the humanities unthinkingly malign STEM in front of me. Their bias has become so deeply ingrained that they don’t think twice. My students tell me it’s worse when I’m not around. With joking asides during class or more-pointed conversations about careers, the STEM disciplines are caricatured as a gulag for creative types. Even a few untoward remarks like this to students can have profound effects. It’s too bad, because science, technology, engineering and math can be among the most creative and satisfying disciplines.

Oakley suggests that it is actually creativity that keeps women out of the unfairly maligned STEM fields:

Many studies, including a critical review by Elizabeth Spelke in American Psychologist, have shown that on average men and women have the same abilities in math and science. But as Mr. Reges notes, women tend to do better than men verbally—a consequence of early developmental advantages.

How does this alter career choice? A student named Bob might get a C in Physics 101 but a D in English composition. His English professor probably won’t try to recruit him into the field. Bob’s choice to become an engineer makes sense because he’s less likely to be good at the social sciences or humanities.

Women who are average in physics classes, on the other hand, are often better at other subjects. When Sara has a C in physics 101, she’s more likely to have a B or even an A in English composition. Her English professor is more likely to recruit her. And, crucially, the “STEM is only for uncreative nerds” characterization can play well here. It can provide a mental boost for Sara to hear a powerful figure like her professor denigrate the subject she’s struggling with.

. . .

Consider a student who gets an A in every subject. Let’s call her Nadine. She’s the type of student who could excel in whatever she chooses. Her engineering professors might be telling her that an electrical engineering degree is a great career choice that will open doors and pay well. But her non-STEM professors may be telling her something completely different: “You won’t use your fantastic writing skills. And besides, you’ll just sit in a cubicle crunching numbers.” Nadine can begin to feel she’s untrue to her full set of talents if she picks engineering. So Nadine jumps the STEM ship.

As for prejudice being what keeps women out of STEM fields, Oakley says that there are jerks in every workplace. STEM is not more filled with jerks than other professions.

Good and bad bosses, she says, are everywhere. Bullying, for example, the ultimate expression of jerkdom, is especially prevalent in the still-female dominated field of nursing.

Oakley concludes that STEM needs women and it's time for professors in other fields to stop painting a false picture of it to poach the best students, "who are often women."






IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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