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OMANA: Women in STEM are fighting hard for place at table

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For the first time in 55 years, and the third time in all of history, the Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to a woman, Donna Strickland.  

Strickland, a Canadian optical physicist, was awarded the 2018 prize alongside scientists Gérard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin for their work on generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses which "revolutionized laser physics," according to the Royal Swedish Academy.

Although we celebrate these advancements and Strickland, another woman to break the glass ceiling, we cannot help but look at this as another example as to how our world today still has a ways to go in regards to female representation and equality. 

To all those who say women have it good enough or that there is no need for women to fight for representation, remember this: In 116 years of Nobel Prize history, only three women have won the award in Physics. 

No, this is not because men are smarter or because women do not like science. There are factors and a patriarchy behind this unjust phenomenon. Women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of STEM workers, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey (ACS). 

This is just one statistic about women in STEM that is just as shocking as it is terrifying. The underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is a familiar and recurring narrative that seems to not diminish regardless of how much time passes. The Independent weighed in on this issue saying that “Until the last century, the majority of scientific research was conducted by men precisely because women were either actively excluded or made to feel unwelcome. Despite more diverse departments being more productive, physics and computer science has been particularly slow to wake up — with some disciplines moving at a glacial pace," according to The Independent. 

Women are a minority within STEM fields, especially within physics and computer science, hence why Strickland is just the third woman to win the prize in physics. The presence of these women in these fields is often invisible and overlooked. Strickland, now seen as a trailblazer for so many girls and women, exemplifies the lack of female representation and the rarity of her success and recognition, but it still leads us to wonder why this is so. 

"Societal stereotypes still make women feel intellectually inferior to men, even at senior levels. These stereotypes aren’t based on biological fact but a litany of dodgy neuroscience and psychology," according to The Independent. 

“Studies show that girls and women avoid STEM education not because of cognitive inability, but because of early exposure and experience with STEM, educational policy, cultural context, stereotypes and a lack of exposure to role models," according to The BBC

As young girls, we often receive the message that girls are not good at math or science. If that is not the stereotype that is used to defeat a girl’s confidence in STEM subjects, then I am sure we are all familiar with the stereotype that women are irrational and emotional and that their male peers have a more rational mind that allows them to excel in math and science. These stereotypes often times discourage young girls, and either gives them the pass to not try in these subjects or makes them feel that their place is elsewhere. 

Reasons why there is such a disproportion within the STEM realm may include, "different choices men and women typically make in response to incentives in STEM education and STEM employment — for example, STEM career paths may be less accommodating to people cycling in and out of the work-force to raise a family — or it may be because there are relatively few female STEM role models. Perhaps strong gender stereotypes discourage women from pursuing STEM education and STEM jobs."

The nature of the STEM world time and time again tells a story that this is a man’s world. This belief discourages young girls from partaking in and challenging men, and the consequences are evident even today. 

Women need to not only be given more seats at the table, but encouraged to be at the table and listened to when they are there. Strickland’s win is important and celebrated, but we should strive to live in a world where women excelling in and finding success in STEM fields is a norm. We should strive to live in a world where a woman is celebrated for just being great rather than for being great while also being a woman. 

Breana Omana is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in political science. Her column, "Left Brain, Right Brain," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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