Why are there fewer women in STEM?

Most people and organizations attribute the lack of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields to the biological make-up of the fairer sex. Eileen Pollack, a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan and currently working on a book about women in the sciences, throws light on the struggle young girls and women go through while trying to study subjects such as physics and mathematics.  The way women scholars in such subjects are perceived further demotivates women to pursue it.


Pollack talks about the portrayal of the three lead female characters of popular sit-com ‘Big Bang Theory’. Two out of three characters, Amy and Bernadette, are scientists – both heavily caricatured and shown as almost unattractive. One of them is even socially handicapped. While the third one, who is in fact attractive and outgoing, is a ‘math-and-science-illiterate.’ Women such as these two scientists are almost always stereotyped to be geeks in American popular culture.


Pollack, one of the first two women to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from Yale, shares her experience. While excelling in her class, she was not encouraged by a single faculty member to further pursue Physics. As a child, she wasn’t allowed to take up the subject in school because her principal announced that girls don’t take maths and science. Pollack revealed that tired of constantly working hard and trying to fit in, left her exhausted and she decided to quit the subject.


[Picture Courtesy: Joint Quantum Institute]

As she went back to Yale to find out if the conditions had improved, she was happy to notice that currently 30%-40% of students studying Physics were female; they too, however, reported to have faced similar challenges. Nancy Hopkins, one of the Professors at M.I.T, who was a part of a research to understand the basis of gender bias in science posted in an online forum, “I have found that even when women win the Nobel Prize, someone is bound to tell me they did not deserve it, or the discovery was really made by a man, or the important result was made by a man, or the woman really isn’t that smart. This is what discrimination looks like in 2011.”


Professor Pollack further argues that out of the current women with a Physics Ph.D (1/5th); half aren’t natives the US. She states that many cultures and countries, excluding US, “identify and nurture females with very high ability in mathematics.” To build the argument further she cites a 1999 study conducted by the University of Michigan wherein two groups of students were asked to give a mathematics test. The first group was told that men almost always outperform women in such tests and the other was told that no matter what they had heard before, men and women score the same on it. When the results came out, it was found that in the first group, men’s scores exceeded women’s by 20 points. In the second group, men’s score extended women’s by mere two points.


So, social conditioning and lack of encouragement and opportunities prove to be the major reasons for the absence of women in STEM fields and not the extra ‘X’ chromosome.