Are Women Partly to Blame for the Gender Gap in STEM Fields?

The American Association of University Women recently released its new report, Why So Few?, which aims to identify the causes of the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduate programs and careers.  The report highlights the progress that has been made in closing the gap in some fields, yet expresses concern that in other fields, most notably engineering and computer science, the gap remains pronounced. 

Not only do fewer women than men make it to the upper echelons of academic STEM careers, but a higher percentage of women than men leave the field by midcareer (although I would guess that men with children and professional wives may leave the field at a rate that approaches that of women with children, as opposed to men who have children and stay-at-home wives).

What are the reasons for this persistent gap?  According to the report, social and environmental factors are to blame.  Shocking.  Sadly, this report serves only to regurgitate age-old accusations and assumptions, and to make worn-out recommendations that we’ve heard so many times before—none of which have proven terribly effective in closing the gap in certain fields. 

I can tell that the report was written by academics for academics, because it considers only those who are in traditional research careers as STEM participants.  The metric by which success is measured is academic ranking in the university setting, and it is clear that the authors, without any solid empirical evidence to substantiate this claim, believe that if we just had more women (them) in the senior academic ranks, more girls would pursue engineering and computer science majors and careers.

Maybe that is the case, but maybe it is not.  Regardless, the inherent bias in this report should caution everyone against taking the results too seriously.  Why weren’t any men included among the authors?  How can a group of women spend hundreds of pages criticizing men for excluding them, only to turn around and do the very same thing to men in writing this report?  Despite what they may want you to believe, there are many men who are supportive of women in STEM, and who even have wives and daughters that have enjoyed successful STEM careers. 

Am I shocked that a group of university women, largely ”produced” during the 60s and 70s, wrote a report that used academic ranking of females as the proxy for female success in STEM fields?  Of course not.  But this narrow focus on academic research careers as the “be all, end all” for those with a serious interest in STEM may be the very reason why we see persistently low recruitment levels to STEM majors, especially among women, and such a high degree of career dissatisfaction and dropout rates among those who endured such lengthy and costly training along the way.

In reality, if we did a better job of exposing students to, and preparing them for, the vast array of careers that are outside the laboratory but that take full advantage of rigorous STEM training—and that, frankly, pay better and are more conducive to a healthy work-life balance—we might find that more students are interested in completing a STEM major and persisting in a STEM related career. 

I’ve received countless numbers of e-mail messages and phone calls from frustrated STEM graduate students who want to know how I got out of the lab and into another career.  Research is not for everyone, yet it is the only career for which many STEM academic departments prepare students, and it is certainly the career choice that academic faculty value most among their graduates (with rare exception, including my wonderful adviser, who has been supportive of my alternative pathway every step of the way and, as a result of watching his own professional wife balance career and family, was incredibly flexible when I entered graduate school with two children and a husband in tow).

That people who leave the laboratory are frequently shunned as failures, assumed to be incompetent, and accused of being sellouts—clearly excommunicated from the STEM club—doesn’t help.  The narrow focus on research careers, to the exclusion of all others, may be the real source of the disappointing enrollment trends.

Research careers are highly competitive.  No matter how long you’ve been at it, to be a successful researcher means competing against a growing group of applicants for a shrinking supply of grant and contract resources. As federal spending on interest and entitlement programs grow, the competition is only going to increase.  Peer reviewers and contracting officials are compelled to give priority to those with the strongest track record and the highest likelihood of success, which generally means that the rewards are greatest for those who devote the most time and energy to their work.

This isn’t gender bias.  It is reality. There are rare exceptions among a few scientists who can focus intensely—or farm the work out to enough graduate students—that they get the job done with breathtaking efficiency.  But for the most part, no dean or tenure policy in the world can change the fact that research careers are demanding and not very family friendly, because in general, being smart isn’t nearly as important as being persistent, and persistence requires time.  Designing better experiments is good, but being there to repeat them over and over again, in every possible iteration, is even better. 

Students are smart enough to see the pressures under which their faculty mentors travail.  If  a student knows she doesn’t want to spend her career in such a competitive environment, yet she doesn’t see other viable career options based on STEM training, then it isn’t surprising that she would change majors and get out while there’s still time.   

I could go on and on about the limitations of this report and its overreliance on poorly designed studies or anecdotal legal cases to come to tired and unsubstantiated conclusions about why the achievement gap persists.

For example, there is a whole section of the report that explores the “likeability” of successful females over successful males, and the conclusions drawn are based on the results of a couple of poorly designed and statistically insignificant studies.  One study cited as evidence that successful women are less likeable, and therefore, less likely to enjoy career success (except if they are more successful, then how can one argue that their success hindered their success?)  is based on the responses of only 48 survey participants, all of whom were enrolled in an undergraduate psychology course at a single university, and 90 percent of whom also had outside work experience.   In this study, the participants were given career profiles (said to be of equal merit) for one woman, one man, and one “dummy” man (their term, not mine) and were asked to select which individual would be more likeable.  There were 19 students who selected the female as the more likeable candidate, whereas 23 students selected the male.  So the difference of four votes among a group of 48 respondents is seen as quantifiable and undeniable evidence that successful females are unlikeable. Meanwhile, because two-thirds of the candidates were male, I would be surprised if the results didn’t lean toward the likeable male, given there were two to select from.  Is it possible that something in the fictitious resumes, rather than candidate’s gender, influenced the results?

We don’t know what sort of messages might have been planted in the psychology classroom or through the psychology curriculum that may have biased these results. That the researcher used students in her own department, and possibly even in her own classes, to perform the study raises a number of questions.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to sample a larger group of students that come from a wide range of majors and even more than one university?  Also, this study relied on “recruited” survey participants, as opposed to randomly selected participants. The literature about selection bias is quite extensive, so I need not review it here. 

Beyond that, we don’t know whether it was societal cues and environmental factors that influenced the decisions these students made on their survey, or if it was some real life experience that may have had a greater impact on their choices regarding the most likeable candidate.

The report tells us that 90 percent of the student participants had jobs outside of school, which means that each of them probably had a boss who was either a male or a female, and whom they did or did not like.  Maybe the students saw their own bosses in the fictitious candidates before them, and voted accordingly.  A sample size of 48 does not lend itself to an unconfounded experimental design in which one can declare with certainty that causal, rather than coincidental, relationships exist.  I would argue that women (and men) who are competent, nice, collaborative, flexible, inclusive, have a good sense of humor, can roll with the punches, and are supportive of peers and subordinates are likeable, and that those who are nasty, bossy, judgmental, exclusive, demanding or threatening are not, regardless of their sales record in the aircraft industry (the scenario contrived for this study).  Reality is far more complex than is an either/or survey about three fictitious characters about whom only limited information is provided.

The report also focuses narrowly on biases that men might show toward women, but completely ignores the notion that women in science may practice their own form of exclusivity amongst themselves. The report cites a legal case in which a woman was denied a partnership at a firm because she was perceived by the male partners as being too “macho,” crude in her behaviors, not feminine enough, and offensive in her use of profanity—which resulted in charges of sexual discrimination against the men.  It is possible that this woman’s behavior was not worthy of partnership in the firm.  The idea that men are the only ones who discriminate against women is short-sighted and naïve.  How many women have been pushed out of science by other women, because they are perceived as being too pretty, too feminine, or too interested in “girly” things—like makeup—to be smart?  

Women in STEM are pretty selective about who they will let into the clubhouse, and while they may say that they want more women on the faculty, they want to be quite selective about which women are allowed to join the club.  When I was a graduate student, I had the unique opportunity to watch an alpha female at work, and it was scary.  I saw how she treated the junior female faculty members, as well as how she treated students who didn’t conform to her narrow world view regarding how women should look, dress, and behave. She once told me that I would never make it in science if I didn’t stop accessorizing … and let me be clear that this woman considered deodorant and a bra to be unnecessary accessories. 

On the issue of family friendliness, I must burst the bubble and report that it is sometimes women and not men who create an unfriendly environment for those who have children. Similarly, it is not only women, but also frequently men who suffer from the time pressures of both a research career and child-rearing.  I was once asked by a female faculty member why I thought I could raise children and complete a graduate degree when she, who was obviously smarter than I was, had to forfeit children to enjoy career success.

To be fair, not all childless women are unsupportive of their mother peers. Some see the children of peers as an extension of their own family, and they are incredibly helpful and supportive.  Nor are all women with children understanding and flexible when it comes to the work-life balance of their younger peers.  We cannot generalize by gender or family situation, but must instead look to individuals as either the cause of the problem or the source of potential solutions. 

We do, however, need to be honest about the fact that it might not be exclusively the men in science who make the field unattractive to so many young women.  Sometimes, it would seem, that the women in science are the source of the problem, especially in those instances when their behaviors, appearances, and life choices don’t align with what many young girls imagine for themselves as adults.

Perhaps it is time for women to stop playing the role of victim and, instead, look within their own clubhouse for at least some of the answers to the enrollment and gender gap problem.  And perhaps it is time to reform undergraduate and graduate STEM curricula to expose students to the wide range of STEM applications, and therefore, STEM-related careers, that are available to those who like science and math, but don’t see themselves spending a lifetime at the bench.

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