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5 Reasons Why STEM Has a Woman Problem

How is it that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) companies can find solutions for some of the world's most complex problems, but they can't seem to solve the gender bias issue that keeps women out of STEM careers? According to new research, it's because we, as a culture, don't know that there's even a problem – it's unconscious, and we're all to blame.

How is it that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) companies can find solutions for some of the world’s most complex problems, but they can’t seem to solve the gender bias issue that keeps women out of STEM careers? According to new research, it’s because we, as a culture, don’t know that there’s even a problem – it’s unconscious, and we’re all to blame.

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(Photo Credit: Tekniska museet/Flickr)

“Today, women account for just 12 percent of computer science graduates. In 1984, that figure was 37 percent,” reports AdWeek in its feature on Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, an organization that encourages young girls to pursue careers in computer science through training and mentorship programs. In 2011, The US Department of Commerce reported that women held less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, despite making up half of the workforce in America. What’s the deal?

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New research conducted by Kathrine W. Phillips, Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University, and Erika V. Hall, Assistant Professor of Organization & Management at Emory University Goizueta Business School, found that gender bias, not pipeline issues or personal choices, plays a significant role in pushing women out of STEM. The study compiled data from interviews (60) and surveys (557) of female scientists, and it was discovered that there are four main biases that women in STEM face in their careers, and one additional bias that is unique to black and Latina women in these fields. Here are the five biases, as reported on Harvard Business Review:

Unconscious biases that keep women out of STEM

(Photo Credit: Harvard Business Review)

1. Prove It Again: “Two-thirds of the women interviewed, and two-thirds of the women surveyed, reported having to prove themselves over and over again – their successes discounted, their expertise questioned,” according to Harvard Business Review.

2. The Tightrope: Women in STEM careers often try desperately to find a balance between being masculine enough to be accepted in their male-dominant industries, and still maintain their femininity. Just take a look at these ridiculous comments one woman received from her male tech colleagues.

3. The Maternal Wall: Almost two-thirds of the female scientists in the study, who were also mothers, indicated that “their commitment and competence [were] questioned, and opportunities [started] drying up,” simply because they had children, according to HBR.

4. Tug-of-War: Roughly one-fifth of the female scientists in the study indicated that they felt as though they were competing for the “woman’s spot” among other female colleagues, despite nearly three-fourths of the women reporting that they felt supported by other women in their work environments.

5. Isolation: Of the female scientists studied, black women and Latina women were the only groups to indicate isolation, and sometimes exclusion, as a problem in their careers. One biologist explained that she avoids social events with her colleagues because, as she explains, if “it’s too social, then I think there’s a greater risk of you being put in that subservient position, or being looked at that way,” which she attributed to gender during her interview for the study – however, the findings indicated that this was “a problem only Black women mentioned – and they mentioned it often.”

Read the full study and its findings, here.

The study’s findings ring true for all STEM industries, not just science. Thankfully, industry leaders, such as Google, aren’t letting this one get swept under the rug any longer. Google had dedicated a great deal of resources to “make the unconscious, conscious” in order “to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people,” according to its blog. The tech-leader even developed the Unconscious Bias @ Work program make its employees more aware of unconscious bias and how it can negatively influence everyday perceptions, decisions, and interactions. Long story short, we need more Googles in the world so that females, young and old, don’t have to feel like they’re setting themselves up for failure in considering a career in STEM.

Tell Us What You Think

Are you a woman in a STEM occupation who can relate to these unconscious biases in your career? Share your insight with our community on Twitter and help spark the conversation.

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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