From a young age, I learned from my mother that women should work—not because they have to, but because they have brains and should use them. In my mother’s time, it was unusual for a woman to work outside the home. Thankfully, things have changed.
Women now account for roughly 50 percent of the college-educated workforce in the United States. Still, there are some areas where women’s employment lags behind men. For example, women represent less than 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
When it comes to fields like physics, electrical engineering, and computer hardware engineering, women represent just 11 percent of workers. Data from the Pew Research Center in 2018 suggests that this kind of gender imbalance is tied to higher rates of gender discrimination at work.
It can be uncomfortable to take an honest look at gender discrimination. Nevertheless, the first step toward eliminating gender discrimination in STEM is to acknowledge the problem.
Below, I’ve listed four discriminatory issues that women in STEM often face, based on what I’ve learned from experts and my own observation.
1. Lack of Support from Leadership
Around 18 percent of women in STEM jobs report that they are less likely to receive support from leaders than male employees performing the same work. Just 9 percent of men in STEM say the opposite.
According to Forbes, “supporting” an employee may take many forms. These include discussing her career goals and working alongside her to develop a growth plan, offering new learning opportunities on the job, meeting regularly to discuss professional development and progress, and taking the time to listen when she has questions or concerns about her career path.
2. Difficulty Maintaining Approval or Gaining Respect
Canadian politician Charlotte Whitton’s quote that “whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought of as half as good” is unfortunately accurate for many women in STEM. Data published in a Harvard Business Review article suggests that as much as two-thirds of women holding professional STEM positions feel that they repeatedly need to prove themselves to earn respect in their fields.
Additionally, nearly 30 percent of women in STEM feel they have been treated as incompetent at work based on their gender. For women who work in computing jobs, that number rises to 40 percent.
This may be attributable in part to the myth that men are naturally better at math and science. This incorrect belief often begins as early as age 6! Even among the most forward-thinking men and women, the implicit bias can linger into adulthood. A longstanding belief in men’s superiority at math and science can affect the way people evaluate the work and performance of women in STEM.
3. Unequal Pay for the Same Work
A full 46 percent of men in America believe that the gender pay gap is a politically motivated myth. In reality, women in virtually every sector of the economy experience pay discrimination at work. This number includes positions in STEM, which are considered to be among the highest-paid professional positions in the economy.
Overall, 29 percent of women STEM workers reported in the Pew Research Study that they had experienced pay discrimination based on their gender. For women in computing, this number was much higher at 46 percent. According to data from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women in engineering generally make just 82 percent of what a man makes performing the same work.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA’s) Center for Workplace Mental Health, the gender wage gap may contribute to increased rates of depression and anxiety in working women. Additionally, this disparity in pay can have lifelong effects. For example, it can result in a substantially smaller retirement income for women after they have left their professional positions—in spite of performing the same work throughout their careers.
4. Sexual Harassment
When it comes to sexual harassment, women in STEM are more likely to say it is a problem in the industry rather than at their workplace. The statistics behind these responses are jarring, however. Over half of women in STEM say that sexual harassment is, at minimum, a small problem in the industry as a whole. In their own workplaces, over one-third say it is at least a small problem, and 22 percent say that they have experienced sexual harassment.
The problem of sexual harassment in STEM is so significant that a group of US Senators introduced a bill that would allocate $17.4 million in federal funding every year to research on discrimination and sexism against women in STEM. The cause has also been taken up by the group 500 Women Scientists, which offers eight ways that anyone can be an ally in the fight against the sexual harassment of women in STEM.
The Takeaway: What Can Be Done?
Social biases and personal beliefs aside, research supports the idea that gender and racial diversity are key to innovation in STEM. If the industry fails to address the problems its female workers are experiencing, the imbalance of female and male workers in the industry will likely continue and hold back scientific progress.
To address gender discrimination in STEM, both men and women who work in these industries must fight back against it. A 2019 article published in Nature suggests that men who challenge discriminatory practices and support female colleagues in science and engineering jobs can actually enact a culture change throughout an entire company. STEM needs more men to offer their support and call out discriminatory behavior when they see it.
Lastly, women who work in STEM have a role to play in fighting discrimination. In STEM as in life, women have to look after each other. If women help other women, it’s possible to build a world where all women can work—not because they have to, but because they have brains and should use them.