Science issue: The Science of Women in Science

17b-ellen-robertson-photoNewsThere are women in science. And then there is the science of women in science. Exploring and applying this science is important to me as a social psychologist, from the USA.

Why do we need a science of women in science? Even though women now participate in the workforce almost equally to men, 46.8% in the USA in 2015 (United States Department of Labor, 2016), they are still missing from many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In the USA in 2015, women made up only 15.4% of architecture and engineering professionals, 25.6% of computer and mathematical professionals, 29.8% of chemists and materials scientists, 24.5% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, and 37.6% of all other physical scientists (United States Bureau of Statistics, 2015).

One way of interpreting these statistics is that women are inherently worse at science than men, and unfortunately this is a common interpretation. However, research suggests that this is not the case. Melissa Hines’ (2004) in-depth work on gender development has shown that only very few and very specific cognitive abilities seem to be inherently different, such as three-dimensional, but not two-dimensional, mental rotation (better in men) and verbal fluency (better in women). In short, cognitive differences which do seem to be inherent are too specific and the gender difference too small to account for the much more dramatic difference in engagement in STEM fields.

So why are there more men in STEM than women?

Levine, et al (2015) summarise the primary barriers to women’s achievement in STEM fields as follows:

  1. Lack of female role models: if girls and women don’t see other women in science, they struggle to imagine themselves in science, and are discouraged from pursuing it;
  2. Women’s self-perceptions: gender stereotypes often make women see themselves as less capable than men in the sciences, which can undermine their success and further discourage them from pursuing science;
  3. Interactions with teachers, parents, and colleagues: if people believe the stereotypes and treat women as if they are less capable at science, women may be accepted less frequently into science positions, and taken less seriously even when they are accepted. Besides having professional consequences for these women, this may furthermore reinforce their own feelings of inability.

Why is this research necessary?

First of all, it’s important for the women among us to be aware that our barriers aren’t biological, but social. This brings our attention to things in our environment that try to limit us, and allows us to overcome them. Secondly, this research makes us all, men and women, realise that every word and every action play a role in determining other women’s opportunities in life.

Each of us might be treating men and women differently when it comes to science, and we might even be underestimating women’s abilities.

Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of all of us to contribute actively to a more equal society.

Ellen Robertson
PhD Student

References:

Hines, M. Brain gender (2004). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Levine, M., Serio, N., Radaram, B., Chaudhuri, S., and Talbert, W. Addressing the STEM Gender Gap by Designing and Implementing an Educational Outreach Chemistry Camp for Middle School Girls. Journal of Chemical Education. 2015, 92, 1639−1644.

United States Bureau of Statistics. (2015). Women in the labor force: a databook. Washington D.C.: BLS Reports.

United States Department of Labor. (2016). Women in the Labor Force. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/wb/stats/facts_over_time.htm#labor

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