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The Low Representation of Women in STEM fields 3

sekang's picture

The Low Representation of Women in the STEM Fields

Initially, I planned to focus my web event #3 to answer the questions presented at the end of the web event #2. The questions are “what should the society do to encourage more women in the STEM fields? More specifically, what can I do to encourage fellow women to pursue further education in the STEM fields?” However, professor Dalke had suggested taking the prior step to inventing my own methods. As recommended, I looked into researches on the pedagogy and some of the pedagogical programs that are currently in act. As I attempted to find various programs on helping more women to pursue careers in the STEM fields, I faced another problem. I still do not fully understand the causes of the low representation of women in the STEM fields other than those presented in the first web event. In the web event #1, I presented two causes that lead to the small number of women in math and science fields. The two causes are “the dull atmosphere of science classes” and the incompetency of women’s brains to learn science subjects. Instead of completely buying the two reasons, I found the latter one skeptical. Hence, I had dedicated the second web event to explore the validity of the theory of biological differences between men and women and how they contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the STEM fields. Referring to several books and articles, I came to a conclusion that women and men are equally capable of learning quantitative subjects. I supported the conclusion by emphasizing that the belief of influence of biological differences between men and women on learning aptitude is largely biased and not accurate. Since one of the two causes I stated in the web event #1 was found to be false, I knew only one legitimate reason for my paper topic. Although it may seem unnecessary, I value the importance of learning more causes, which will help me understand the pedagogical suggestions more easily. Thus, I stepped back a bit, once again, and concentrated on studying more reasons behind the low representation of women in the STEM fields.

            Fortunately, plenty of articles and books present many research experiments from which they discovered that there are no innate differences between brains of men and women. It also seems there are many educators who believe in the capability of women to learn and enjoy math and science courses. Though women are as equally competent as men are in learning in the STEM fields, the problem of the small number of women still exists. Two professors of the University of Kansas, Barbara Kerr and Karen Multon, “published a study showing that the ability alone simply isn’t enough for women to excel in the STEM fields…” (Krings) As I looked more carefully into many studies on this topic, I was able to find many causes. Out of many different factors discovered, two of them were most frequently mentioned: the gender bias and the lack of female role models in the STEM departments.

            Believe it or not, there still exists gender bias in today’s society. In an article, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), De Welde claims that “people create normative beliefs and stereotypes about gender that affect the way they perceive the behavior and attributes of women and men.” (De Welde) The popular “beliefs and stereotypes” towards gender can and do influence at various settings, including workplaces and schools. Since the gender bias had become a norm in our society, it often gets practiced unintentionally. Since the actions under the gender bias are done subconsciously they are hard to detect and correct.

The gender bias produces noticeable gender segregation in physical science. The author of the book, Physics and Math, states that “World War I was chemists’ war; World War II was the physicists’ war.” (Schiebinger 1999, pg. 164) Perhaps it is inevitable but to admit that the military aspect of the physical sciences plays a significant role in creating a more firm gender difference between men and women. For instance, “the imagery of male pregnancy and birth surrounding the production and testing of the atomic and hydrogen bomb: the A-bomb was ‘Oppenheimer’s baby’ and H-bomb ‘Teller’s baby.’ Successful bombs were males: ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy.’” (Schiebinger 1999, pg. 166) Hence, the reason why “women are so poorly represented in physics and other physical sciences … [is] not because it is harder conceptually, but rather because of its image, culture, association, and organization.” (Schiebinger 1999, pg. 169) The close relationship between the military and the physical sciences arouses the gender bias in the field of physical sciences. The existence of gender bias not only discourages women to pursue their careers in the field of physical sciences, but it also generates a vicious cycle of female status in the STEM fields. The cycle builds up and even solidifies the well-known belief that men are more competent than women at learning the STEM subjects. In her article, Palek expresses that “often unconsciously, gender bias reinforces the idea that men ‘naturally’ excel in disciplines using spatial and quantitative skills and that women conversely ‘naturally’ excel in fields utilizing language skills." (Palek) As seen above, the gender bias resulted in naming all the successful bombs as males, which form certain reputations of male as strong, aggressive, and successful. The formed images of men then draw an unspoken conclusion that men gave more contribution to the invention by naming the bombs after them and hence supporting the well-convinced belief of male’s higher aptitude of learning STEM subjects. The vicious circle does not end there. It “inhibits many talented women and girls from entering STEM careers.” (Palek) Though “earning STEM credentials and higher education is one of the best ways to move women and their families out of poverty.” (Palek) The lack of encouragement for the women by agreeing with the “normative” belief hinders the female students to become financially independent and stable.

In addition to the gender bias and as part of the vicious cycle, there is a tremendous lack of female role models in the STEM departments. De Welde recalls one of the outcomes of the gender bias in her article, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). “At higher levels of STEM education, the percentage of women continues to decline…though women earn nearly half of mathematics bachelors’ degrees, they earn only 27% of doctoral degrees.”  (De Welde) The statistics for the mathematics department is even more shocking. “Almost half of the math majors in the United States are women, but only a quarter of the math Ph.D.’s, less than 10 percent of tenured faculty, and 5 percent of tenured professors in Ph.D.-granting departments.” (Schiebinger, pg. 170) “More tellingly, in 1992, women held only 5 of 288 tenured positions in the ten most prestigious math departments. Despite near equality at the undergraduate level, potent myths surrounding mathematical genius work to exclude women at the professional level. (Schiebinger, pg. 170) As part of the vicious circle, the decline of women in the higher level of the STEM education results in another inevitable consequence. As female students continue in their education in the STEM departments, the chance for them to meet a role model or an inspiring female figure is very low. To female students, the presence of role models dramatically influences on their persistence. “Women students look to faculty as role models for balancing career and family, and if career demands are seen as excessive, may leave their department in higher numbers than men. Women scientists benefit from role models and mentors who are cognizant of the differential experiences of women and men in the sciences.” (De Welde) The lack of female faculty members in the higher level of the STEM fields brings another disadvantage. “The theory of ‘critical mass’ asserts that as representation of women increases, so will their access to important resources and social networks.” (De Welde) Hence, the cycle starting with the gender bias creates a vicious cycle that keeps creating outcomes that are disadvantageous for the female students in the STEM fields.

In my web event #1, I discovered that “the dull atmosphere of science classes” is partly the reason for the decreasing number of women pursuing education in the STEM fields. Even though this paper is my last one of this semester on the topic of low representation of women in STEM fields, I spent the time to familiarize myself with other causes, instead of rushing to find a solution. As I read several books and articles about the causes, I discovered that gender bias existed everywhere, including work places, schools, and even any moment influences the female students’ decision. Also, as the presence of role models has a big impact on women’s lives, the lack of female faculty and staff at the higher level of education leads to the small number of female students pursuing careers in the STEM fields. Having learned about a few more causes of the low representation of women in the STEM fields, I will be able to better understand the pedagogical theories.


De Welde, Kristine, Sandra Laursen, and Heather Thiry. Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Rep. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <>.

Schiebinger, Londa L. "9. Physics and Math." Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Krings, Mike. "KU News Release." Study: Privilege Not Indicator of Women's Success in STEM Fields. The University of Kansas, 5 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.

Palek, Jessica. "Recruiting and Supporting Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Careers." The Huffington Post., 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <>.


Anne Dalke's picture

Interrupting the Pattern?

I appreciate your explanation, @ the beginning of this essay, of why you need to "step back" a bit, once more, in order to better understand the reasons so few women pursue work in STEM fields. I agree entirely that you can't begin encouraging more of them to do so, unless you understand more fully why they are reluctant to participate in the first place. Whatever pedagogical innovations you might propose need to address the perceived lacks. So: this is a good move to begin.

You go on to identify two important factors in the continuing lack of female representation in STEM fields: gender bias and the lack of female role models. Women continue to experience the phenomenon of "stereotype threat," as "the image, culture, association, and organization" of STEM fields continues to be insistently male. The Catch-22, as you explain, is that there is no "critical mass" of women in these fields, to interrupt this "vicious cycle."

And so, the question remains: what to do? How to interrupt this pattern? What pedagogical innovations are needed? Having spent the semester laying out the problems, will you try to answer some of these questions in your last web event?