Society's Beef with Women in STEM

Mar 07 2013 Published by under Uncategorized


I've decided to stray away from Neuroscience for one post and take complete advantage of Scientopia's diverse platform.

In honour of International Women’s Day  and after some recent personal conversations (okey they were more like one sided rants), I wanted to talk about women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Initially I thought this post would be a breeze to write.

I mean I'm a woman, I'm studying in a STEM field, I organize events for other women in STEM of various ages, I am a community outreach youth counselor who concentrates on gender specific programming, and I LOVE every minute of my day/night..

Then I started the research.

Oh man. Did I ever sink into a blackhole.. I have written at least 6 versions of this post..

Now that I've struggled with articulating it, I've come to realize it’s a loaded topic, what to talk about? The role of media? The cultural differences? The retention rate for women in STEM? The job markets? Public perception of women in STEM? How about the women themselves, how do they feel?

Then I got into the "Geek" and "Nerd" allocations.. yea. I am still trying to process all these facts (read: opinions, stereotypes, discriminatory remarks, racist remarks and of course sexist remarks, its not a happy place out there)

I’ve decided to simply write it from my perspective. Cavaet:  I may be coming from a somewhat privileged standpoint, I grew up with both parents being engineers and with the expectation that I follow suit (yes I picked Neuroscience over Aerospace engineering and yes my father is convinced it's a hobby, but that is rant I can go into another time). Let's focus on the topic at hand..

Girls and society.

“As girls grow up, they are socialized to believe that women are caring and empathetic, making careers that nurture others appealing; more abstract fields like math and physics do not seem as female friendly. Drawing women to these areas requires countering these perceptions.”


From my experience, girls want to make a difference, they want to do something that impacts the community. They respond strongly to the idea of changing the world into a better place. Research has actually shown this to be the case, girls are less likely to enter into a field they perceive to be less likely to help people (Diekman, Brown, Johnston & Clark 2010).

Girls and STEM

Researching, attracting and retaining women in STEM has been a hot topic within university STEM departments and granting agencies (ie.Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada 2010 Report )

It's also been tackled by governments (the European Commission (EC)  “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” , Japan's Miss Rikei Contest  ) TV shows ( The Erika Show), and even NFL/NBA Cheerleaders .

The media has either loved or hated  the way the females have been portrayed (feminine, girlie, pretty, sexy, ect.)  ...

You may be asking yourself, someone must have looked into this method of attracting girls into STEM more scientifically...

They have. A popular study by, Betz & Sekaquaptewa (2012) make the argument that uber (my word, best way I can describe the females they used in their task) feminine STEM role models were actually discouraging middle school girls interest in STEM when compared to being exposed to a gender-neutral STEM role models. These authors have been quoted saying that having a "geeky" female role model did not motivate the girls to pursue STEM related field either... I encourage you to read the paper, it has some great background, but I am interested in what you think about the experimental design.

Personally I cringed during the EC video, I didn't see a problem with the cheerleaders (although I played rugby in high school) nor did I see anything wrong Dr.Erika.. But then again I am not a middle school girl, so I did my own little n=1 experiment,I showed the videos to my 13 year old sister (affectionately known as the half human), who is a self-proclaimed "jockey fashionable nerd" (her words, apparently it applies anyone who likes math, the shade of purple, plays sax & american football... -_- ). I asked her what she thought of the women in them. Her reaction to them went like this:

In response to the EU video "Why are you showing me such an old video? Are they supposed to be scientists? Why are the girls walking around instead of doing science?"

In response to seeing Erika " She's so pretty, what did she do her PhD in? Where is MIT?"

In response to the Cheerleading video "I think this is cool. Didn't your friend do hockey & her masters? You know what would be fun, if they made this with all the sports!"

So the videos didn't "demotivate" her or make her question her abilities. Granted she comes from a family of female engineers and her older sister (ME) a little excessive with the science/engineering worshiping. I plan on showing these videos to her class (grade 8) in two weeks when I go talk to them about Neuroscience (and embarrass her). I'll update you guys on their reactions in the comments.

Girls, STEM and Society

A lot of arguments I've read online are talking about how feminine these women are and that the videos are objectifying the women behind the science.

It should be about the science, not about how hot or sexy the scientist is.

Agreed.. BUT.

Let's take a step back here people.

Our entire society objectifies women. We can spend days on how women are objectified in the media & the press.

But that is neither here or there. The above videos/campaigns are aimed to the very society in which a women are portrayed a certain way.

Does that make them right? It's not a moral issue. It's an issue of taste and culture.

Does that make them relevant or effective? Perhaps, some girls may find them quite relevant (maybe not the EU one, that one is just horrible.. )

Girls, STEM & Geeks

Scouring through pages and pages of online articles, I came across articles from online communities to articles in Forbes.

You know too much about star wars, you know too little, you're too pretty to be a gamer, you're too ugly to be a comic hero, you're too well dressed to be a nerd, you're too under-dressed to be taken seriously..

There seems to be one take home message among all the judgement out there, you're screwed if your too feminine and you're screwed if your not.

Heaven forbid should you fall into a category that seems to represent more then one thing.

.....What a load of bull$*#!

I get it. We are a visual society, we enjoy the pretty, hell I LOVE the pretty. It's the association between the pretty and the science that seems to be the tough pill to swallow. Not being taken seriously, being brushed aside, having to work harder just to prove yourself..

I also get how videos like the cheerleading ones may send out a type of message we are not comfortable with.. In the end of the day, if it inspires one girl to go into computer science, all the more power to ya.

Obviously this entire women in STEM issue was alot more complicated then I've talked about, and there are no quick fixes..But you know what you can do? Judge. Not other people. But yourself. The next time you catch yourself putting someone in a box based on looks, take a minute and judge yourself. Harshly. Our girls and boys deserve a better society.

That's my two cents (ie controlled rant)

Stay nerdfabulous;)



For your reading pleasure:

Betz, D.E. & Sekaquaptewa D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735

Diekman, A.B., Brown, E.R., Johnston, A.M., & Clark, E.K. (2010). Seeking Congruity Between Goals and Roles: A New Look at why Women Opt Out of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610377342



11 responses so far

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:

    I suspect part of the problem is extroverted girls who have apparently taken over society. You know, girls that love being popular and superfriendly and omg I looove those shoes!! Squee! Many of my female friends in high school and college didn't really understand why I wanted to read a book on my own rather than talk about every single thought in their brains while going shopping for cute outfits. (Not that I dislike cute outfits, but I prefer to shop alone.) In fact, I tend to make my female students a bit nervous sometimes because I don't tend to speak unless I have something to say- a trait many of the men I have dated and worked with in various labs say they really liked about me. (I'm an analytical chemist.)

    Now all these ladies are discovering that, esp. in STEM work that involves doing lots of math in your head, silence is golden. Just because you know tons of big words and everyone you meet likes you and you're really friendly and you're a "people person" does not make you "smart". Being able to render physical models in your head, and translate these models into math, does. Since the part of the economy that gave people jobs in "human resources" or "law" or "political science" etc. went to hell, being "smart at science" has gotten increasingly "popular"-- and many women want to follow the trend.

    However, science is not a popularity contest. You don't get to vote on what the laws of the natural universe are, and the universe does not care what you think about it. Either you can do the math in your head correctly-- and many, many women are far better at math than they give themselves credit for-- or you cannot. A lot of my female college classmates in genetics and microbiology didn't want to take upper division physics and chemistry because they were afraid of looking stupid in front of the prof-- and feeling like they were "smart" was tied to their self image.

    I didn't care what the prof thought of me-- I wanted to get my money's worth out of college, so I badgered the profs with "stupid questions" until I was sure I had the physical model right in my head. Now, there is nothing wrong with not being able to do this level of rendering! But, I think a lot of gals are perfectly capable of doing it-- but it was easier to do the qualitative stuff like genetics and organic chemistry than talk to the scary quantum physics prof! I think we'd see less attrition if girls worried less about whether or not the prof think they're smart and just asked their questions.

    And, if some of the physics and chemistry profs toned it down a bit with the, ah, more abrasive "humor". (There's a good reason for this style of teaching-- to get super smart, arrogant young boys to consider the fact that perhaps they do not know everything! But, it does not work so well with us gals- we tend to believe the prof if he's says we're an idiot and go into "easier", less math intensive STEM fields.)

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Just had a thought. For the most part, the women who care about why there aren't more women in science ARE women in science. We're the ones who didn't get turned off or turned away. We need to be asking those women why, not ourselves.

  • rimk says:

    Hey Allison, thank you for your comment. If I may address some of the issues you've raised based on my experiences.
    1)You've highlighted personality differences within the general population, personally I think those differences also translate into STEM areas. Like you've known women who shy away from the "hard" science, I know women (like my mother) who teach it.
    2)A great point you bring up is the women's reaction to not being "smart" why do you think that is? Could it be because of culture & society? Not caring what anyone thinks of you with regards to intelligence is something I am a huge advocate for. But then we are bred in a society where appearances and caring for others opinion is the norm.
    3)We can go on about profs and how the respond to female students. In my first year physics class I was the only girl, both the prof and TA kept asking me if I was doing ok. They would stop and clarify something THEY thought I didn't get. This was only in 2005. So yea, profs need to up there game with how they respond to the female population.

  • rimk says:

    Theshortearedowl yes! There are studies who are asking those very questions. But it depends also when you ask them! Middle school? High School? University? Grad school? All those time points will probably garner you a different response.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I am a white male only child raised working on the family ranch in Texas, now an emeritus biology professor. How's that for a disclaimer?
    It has been my experience that shooting the bull for five minutes with a female student not doing very well resulted in her doing much better. I read that male students are concerned that they are treated fairly, while female students want to be seen as individuals. I think there is considerable verisimilitude in that.

    Excessive are you doing all right talk suggest that the prof expects that you are not. Not what I meant by shooting the bull.

  • antistokes (allison l. stelling) says:


    Wow, all of my (5 person) chem college class was female! But, I absolutely know this is hardly the norm.

    1) My mom taught high school chemistry when I was a girl, and now works at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center doing database organizing for cancer trials. So, I was "privileged" as well to have a good female role model growing up. Many of the students I've had have only male role models, and I think it does kind of....mess with their heads a bit. (I've given out lots of, ah, dating advice to the younger set of girl physicists/chemists that I train whose moms were just that- moms! It's an important and severely underrated job, and my mom took a number of years off with me, heh.)

    2) I suspect girls in particular are highly- and naturally- tuned to their social environment. It matters what other people in your community think of you. It affects the mate choices you have available to you, as well as your prospects for living, period. Back in the old days (like, a thousand years ago, or something like that), if you were isolated from your group you would die if you're a girl- esp. a pregnant girl. Boys, on the other hand, could technically survive lone-wolf style. So, us gals care deeply about what other people think about us--- it's truly important for both basic survival and reproductive success. My partner (he's a theoretical physics guy) once said that, while he had some great women teachers in grade school, he was always confused about how variable their responses could be to him. I said that that might likely be due to the women over-reading the body language he was (unknowingly) projecting, and making false assumptions about what he thought about her. He, as a math guy, was totally...."blind" to this-- he barely registers body language because he's too busy using his brain-bones to render pictures in his head!

    So, gals really do care if they are seen as "smart" or not-- and boys could care less; they are usually already convinced that they are sooo clever! This is why dudes hold contests conversationally using the "who's the meanest/insultist-iest/funniest" metric: they see if as "friendly competition".

    3) Yowza. Sigh. Yeah, we've got a ways to go here.......

  • [...] For more on the topic of the conflicting messages aimed at young girls in STEM disciplines especially, read this excellent guest post by Rim at Scientopia. [...]

  • [...] 6. Great blog post from a woman scientist [...]

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