Opinion

Change Is Needed Now for Women in STEM

Harriet Seedhouse writes about the rampant sexism that plagues the STEM field, and what this male-dominated sector can do better.

By Harriet Seedhouse

It is often said that women who work in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) sectors have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their male counterparts – but can it really be that bad? Sometimes, yes. I would love to sit here and say that I, as a female engineering student, have always been treated as an equal to my male peers but unfortunately, merit is not all that matters in today’s society. I am by no means suggesting that this is the experience of all females in engineering, nor that all males in the field treat us with the same sexist attitudes as a few ‘bad apples’ do, but it is only by acknowledging these behaviours that this industry can become a better place for future and present female engineers.

No matter how many people you have cheering you on in this industry, it is easy to feel disheartened when something as trivial as your gender sets you back from others. When I completed my work experience at a large engineering company there was only one woman working there out of a team of around 60, and she was the personal assistant to a manager. This, coupled with them having to hunt around to find steel-toe boots that came in my shoe size could have been enough to put me off a career in engineering. Nonetheless, I persevered, hoping that it would get better once I go to university, graduate and work in the ‘real world’. However, from having remarks made about my successes being based on my gender to men thinking my chest has more to say than my mouth, my path, and that of many other women, to a career in engineering has so far not been an easy one. And, unfortunately, once you are in the professional setting it isn’t always destined to be better.

But why is it like this?

Recently, a former Google engineer issued a memo within Google’s internal network, stating that the reason women are underrepresented in technology is not due to the discrimination that they face but due to “inherent personality differences” between women and men, with one being that women are more “neurotic” (Damore, 2017). This belief that women are the lesser gender is not confined to this one person. From childhood, girls are called bossy for exhibiting leadership skills or rejected by peers for having ‘traditionally male’ interests whereas boys are ‘just being boys’ whenever they act in a boisterous manner. There is no doubt that this imbalanced set of gender norms do have an impact on children growing up – regardless of gender – and it is this social environment that can deter girls from wanting to work in a predominantly male environment.   

Many say that it is purely the unconscious bias from society that drives the low number of women in STEM and, while this may be the case in some instances, it would be foolish to discount the fact that companies and educators simply don’t promote being a woman in STEM. I had few to no female role models in STEM related subjects at school, and I’m not alone in this. An IFS study (2018) found that girls were largely deterred from pursuing maths or physics at A-levels because these subjects were largely male-dominated, which meant a lack of female peers and teachers to support them through their studies. Children can’t aspire to roles that they don’t believe they belong in. It is only lately that we have been seeing more female scientists and engineers being represented in the media, which is a step in the right direction.

In 2015, a chairman for Sequoia Capital commented that he “would hire more women but he doesn’t want to lower their standards”(Bloomberg, 2015) and from the mere 11% of the UK’s engineering workforce that is female, it is clear that multiple companies have issues with hiring women. I’m not asking companies to lower their standards to increase the number of women in STEM, but rather to recognise the fact that internalised sexism plays a crucial role in their rejection of women applicants.

The approach for some is to simply wait until there are enough women in powerful positions that can drive important change from the top and thus hire more women, but I believe we would be waiting for generations for equal treatment and equal proportions in both academic settings and the workplace if this is all that is done. It is estimated that with the current rates, the proportion of women in STEM employment will not reach 50% in the 21st century, so if we want to see real change, we need to act now.

We need companies to support female talent to the same extent as male talent, to get rid of the “boys’ club mentality” that so many men in leadership feed into, and to stop focusing on whether women have the same “abilities” based on their gender. We need teachers to educate students on the multitude of career options that exist, since almost half of young women (48% according to a 2016 survey) do not even consider careers in STEM sectors. We need society to not view women as ‘less than’ but as ‘equal to’ in all settings, so that once women are in these sectors, they do not become discouraged enough to leave it.

We need the women currently working or studying in these areas to remember that, while it may seem that for every opportunity we are given there will always be someone willing to show us that our gender matters more than our intellect, two steps forward and one step backwards is still one step forward.

Harriet Seedhouse is a second year Aerospace Engineering student at the University of Surrey.

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