Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Low Representation of Women in STEM fields

sekang's picture

The Low Representation of Women in STEM fields

 In the previous web event, some articles, such as His Brain, Her Brain by Cahill, suggested that the reason for the low representation of women in the STEM fields is due to brain differences between men and women. As stated in the web event #1, some arguments presented in Cahill’s article support the theory of brain differences between men and women. Cahill then uses the theory to justify small number of women in the STEM fields. However, I find the theory a bit skeptical because I believe that there are no biological parts of women that restrict them from pursuing more education in the STEM fields. Since the end of middle school year, I have been interested in learning about math more than other subjects. I decided to focus on my study on math and become a math major once I started attending a college. There are around 50 students pursuing their bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr Now, an online news blog published on the school website states the following:

“Bryn Mawr College is in the top 10 among liberal-arts colleges in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields. Bryn Mawr students are five times more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry than undergraduate college students nationwide and eight times more likely to do so in math. Bryn Mawr ranks third in the nation in the percentage of female students receiving bachelor’s degrees in math, ranking higher than STEM-oriented universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, and has 15 times the national average of female students graduating in physics.”

The statistics at Bryn Mawr College show that women are and can be interested in studying the STEM fields than Cahill argues in his paper. In order to determine the validity of the theory in Cahill’s article about the innate differences between brains of men and women, I started reading several books on this topic. While reading the books, I discovered a theory that sums up the proposals presented in Cahill’s article called the Organization-Activation hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that “prenatal hormone exposures cause sexual differentiation of the brain – that is, early hormones create permanent masculine or feminine patterns of desire, personality, temperament, and cognition” (Jordan-Young 2010). I was able to find many arguments from the biological perspective about this topic. For this paper, I focus specifically on the psychological aspects of the Organization-Activation hypothesis.

Two out of three books I used for this research suggest that psychology development is largely influenced by the societal context and human behavior. In the book, “Biological Woman,” Henifin presents two studies to introduce her argument, which states that human behavior is dictated by social norms and values. The first study is called the Inner Physiological State Versus Social Context. By presenting this study, the author emphasizes the power of social context, which assigns certain behaviors to each gender. From the data Henifin collected during her research, she discovered that “the far more important determinant to how people will act is not their physiological state, but the social context in which they are acting. Thus, no matter how many physiological differences we may find between men and women, we must be very cautious in assigning any fixed behavioral correlates to the physiological states” (Henifin 1982, pg. 276-277). Further in the book, the author introduces another well-known psychology study, The Obedience Experiments. Henifin uses this study to explain a social situation as a result of directions from figures in authority. She notes that “…behavior is predicated largely on the social situation, not solely on the individual’s history…it appears obvious that a study of human behavior requires first and foremost a study of the social contexts within which people move, the expectations as to how they will behave, and the authority that tells them who they are and what they are supposed to do” (Henifin 1982, pg. 277-278). Hence, the sum of the two studies in Henifin’s book concludes that the authority-influenced “social context” creates socially accepted behaviors for men and women. Another book, “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences” by Jordan-Young, further emphasizes the impact of the social context on human behavior. Interestingly enough, Jordan-Young relates ecotypes and the sexes from an evolutionary perspective. Similar to how plants adapt to the environments, humans tend to conform to the society. “The differences between males and females…can be understood to reflect the different demands that the environment has historically made on males versus females” (Jordan-Young 2010, pg. 276). According to the two books, the Organization-Activation hypothesis seems to be the result of the psychology development of men and women, which is hugely influenced by social values and norms established by the social authority.

In order to better understand the relationship between the psychology development and the social context, it is important to know what social values and norms people face in today’s society. There are two big influences that indicate the origins of the social context, which has affected today’s social standards: the Bible and Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species. Early in the history, the two books established the social prototype, which suggests the inferiority of women, encouraging the existence of the Organization-Activation hypothesis. First of all, the Bible vividly describes Eve’s failure of the trial given by God. In the book of Genesis, the humankind fails the trial because of shortcomings of Eve. The depiction of Eve’s fail sets the cornerstone of the inferior reputation of women. “M. Carey Thomas, founder and first President of Bryn Mawr College, gave the following account of those pressures on her early life…’I can remember weeping over the account of Adam and Eve because it seemed to me that the curse pronounced on Eve might imperil girls’ going to college…” (Henifin 1982, pg. 8). According to Thomas, it seemed that the “guilt” that Eve had to face for failing the trial had a practical influence on people’s lives early in the history; the image of Eve led to the restriction of education on women. In addition to the image of woman set by the Bible, Darwin reinforced the differences between the male and female species on many aspects, including biological and the distinct characteristics of each species. He emphasized that the crucial factor of organism is reproduction. Darwin noted the advantage of aggressive characteristic of males, saying that “the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave more progeny” (Henifin 1982 pg. 26). The observation of the benefit from the active characteristic of males eventually led him to value the sexual selection as an important mechanism by which evolution occurs. The discovery also allowed him to conclude that the “…form of selection depends, not only a struggle for existence in relation to other organic beings or to external conditions, but on a struggle of individuals of one sex, generally males, for the possession of the other sex” (Henifin 1982, pg. 26). Both the Bible and Darwin’s The Origin of Species placed women in a lower position than men. The incidence described in the book of Genesis influenced the way people view women so much that M. Carey Thomas had expressed her uncomfortable feelings of girls’ admission to college. Moreover, Darwin valued the male species as the cause of evolution, essentially giving the male species the credit for the existence of present human form. Thus, the two very powerful books early in the human history had shaped a certain image of women by which people still behave in today’s society.

The image depicted in the two books became socially accepted standards, as the society started to accept the arguments drawn by Darwin and the event described in the Bible. Evidently, it was easier to reinforce the low reputation of women through the Bible with strong religious power earlier in the history. Darwin’s proposal did not have as much authority to convince people as the Bible did, but his discoveries were widely welcomed. “Though most of the elements of Darwinian evolutionary theory existed for at least hundred years before Darwin, he knit them into a consistent theory that was in line with the mainstream thinking of his time” (Henifin 1982, pg. 23). Hence, The Origin of Species is essentially a book that confirmed and agreed with many theories that were already popular and defended by social values back then.

Before going further, it is crucial to note that Darwin’s discoveries in the Origin of Species are biased. Humans use the study of science to justify social patterns and human behaviors. Hence, “science is made by people who live at a specific time in a specific place and whose thought patterns reflect the truths that are accepted by the wider society” (Henifin 1982, pg. 17). As it is today and has been in the past, scientists like to conduct their researches only in the scope of their interests. In the earlier years of developing science, the majority, if not all, of the active and respected scientists were men whose thoughts and views were already stained by the stories represented in the Bible and popular Darwin-like theories. Hence, it is very possible that the research process, the standard of measurement, and even the research topics, were biased. Then, it is logical to assume that “scientists came up with questions and answers that depend on their perceptions of what has been, is, will be, and can be. There is no such thing as objective, value-free science” (Henifin 1982, pg. 20). It was probably impossible for them to catch and correct their flawed way of research, because “our personal and social experience determine what we are able or willing to perceive as real about ourselves and the organisms around us…[people] find it difficult to see the social biases that are built into the very fabric of what they deem real” (Henifin 1982, pg. 20). Since Darwin was raised in a tainted society, he probably was not an objective observer. Similar to Darwin, other scientists during “Darwin’s era,” placed their logic based on the then accepted social values. I hope against any myth about women in science, but “the mythology of science holds that scientific theories lead to the truth because they operate by consensus: they can be tested by different scientists, making their own hypotheses and designing independent experiments to test them” (Henifin 1982, pg. 19-20). From my experience at high school and college, this mythology undoubtedly still holds. It seems like this mythology has been shaping the scientific facts as long as the science existed. As mentioned previously, many scientists during “Darwin’s era” practiced their researches according to the social context; they came up with similar proposals to that of Darwin’s. Since the “consensus” of Darwin’s discoveries was met by other scientists, his theory on sexual selection, different characteristics between male and female species, and the superior status of male to female species became accepted facts.

Without realizing the flawed perspective, history has continued. Along with the Bible, Darwin’s discoveries started to form the social patterns to which people started to behave. People’s acceptance of Darwin’s arguments and the Eve’s failure described in the Bible encouraged them to set the social context. Unfortunately, both the Bible and Darwin’s discoveries buttress the idea of inferiority of women to men. The two very authoritative books largely influenced the societal values and norms, which eventually led to psychology development of humans. As supported by the books used for this paper, psychology development continues to shape today’s social standards. After all, Cahill’s points presented in the article, His Brain, Her Brain, are not completely accurate. It is possible that the studies used in Cahill’s article were largely influenced by the past belief that the biological differences between men and women leads to the different aptitude between the two species. Thus, women are equally competent to study math and science as men are. Then what should the society to do encourage more women in the STEM fields? Specifically, what can I do to encourage my fellow women to pursue further education in the STEM fields?



Jordan-Young, Rebecca M. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Williams, Juanita H. Psychology of Women: Selected Readings. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.

Henifin, Mary Sue., and Ruth Hubbard. Biological Woman -- the Convenient Myth. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Pub., 1982. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

"An open-ended story"

so my first question for you is a technical one: I'm very curious to learn how you went about inserting the images you used to preface your paper (it looks to me as though you didn't actually upload them, but rather inserted them as data? This caused a problem for Serendip; your post was breaking the layout until the webmaster figured out a work-around....)

Whatever the technicalities, it's a real pleasure for me to watch your evolving learning in the course of this semester-long project; I'm heartened to see you being more skeptical than you were last month regarding all the research being done on "brain difference," calling out the ways in which the model is both compelling and persuasive, in large because it reinforces old societal stereotypes. But as Rebecca Jordan-Young makes clear, "formulating this contrast [between the relative contribution of genetic versus environmental variables] already reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of biology ... a growing cadre of biologists ... move firmly away from a notion of genes as static, concrete building blocks .... the notion of genes as 'elemental particles' ... long ago outlived its usefulness .... whatever is 'written in our genes' must be a very open-ended story, because gene expression is a dynamic contingent process that is responsive both to specific conditions during development and to random events ... the three key concepts are the inseparability of experience and heredity, the importance of random events, and the fact that development is a lifelong process" (p. 271).

You close this essay by asking some questions which you might use to structure the next stage you yourself will be writing in this open-ended story: "what should society do to encourage more women in the STEM fields? Specifically, what can I do to encourage my fellow women to pursue further education in the STEM fields?" I'm thinking that there's actually a prior step here, before you plot your own intervention! Shouldn't you look next @ some of the pedagogical theory-and-praxis that's been designed by those who are already working to help women in math? I'm thinking, for instance, of all the work that Rhonda Hughes (who just retired from teaching in the BMC Math Program) has done with the EDGE Program: see, for example, these publications by her:

(with Sylvia Bozeman) Improving the Graduate School Experience for Women in Mathematics: The EDGE Program, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 10 (2004), 243-253.

(with Sylvia Bozeman and Ami Radunskaya) The EDGE Program: Adding Value Through Diversity, Building Diversity in Advanced Mathematics: Models that Work, Patricia Hale and Abbe Herzig, eds.

MSRI Conference (Co-Organizer with Sylvia Bozeman, Duane Cooper, and AbbeHerzig):  “Promoting Diversity at the Graduate Level in Mathematics: A National Forum” October 14-17, 2008

Or perhaps you'd like to conduct interviews w/ several of your math professors, to find out both how they understand the problem and its solutions? No reason to re-invent the wheel; stand on the shoulders of giants (to coin a vew cliches!)