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BENITEZ: STEM field needs to better support women

Column: Hear me out

The lack of women in STEM can be attributed to a multitude of issues, including gender stereotypes and unequal pay, which should urgently be addressed. – Photo by National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

The association between gender and professions has existed for a long time. The whole "women are nurses, and men are doctors" discourse has been going steady for years, and although the world has seen an incredible social change in the last couple of decades, some things just seem to stay the same. 

Even though women made up 48 percent of the entire workforce, men still made up 73 percent of all STEM workers in 2019. Associating STEM as a field with mainly men has become the norm, and this commonly accepted gender gap is a bigger problem than you may think. 

Since the 70s, women have jumped from just 8 percent of all STEM workers to 27 percent. Even though they make up the majority of social sciences employees, these jobs still only count as 3 percent of all STEM occupations. Women still only represent approximately 25 percent of all computer jobs and 15 percent of engineering jobs, which are the higher-paying areas in STEM overall. 

This is a whole lot of statistics to say that there are barriers for women when going into STEM careers and jobs. You do not have to go very far to see this — just walk into an "Introduction to Computer Science" class. You could drown in all the testosterone. 

What is left of this harsh truth is the big question: Why do women stay away from STEM? Contrary to what many people may wrongly think, biology does not play a part in this. Research shows that young girls do not consistently perform worse in math than young boys. 

Besides that, there is little scientific evidence to support the notion that men’s brains are significantly different than women’s. This means that women are discouraged from pursuing STEM mostly because of outside factors: common stereotypes. 

Gender stereotypes have been around forever. The idea that math is for boys and English is for girls, even with the lack of evidence, is a stereotype that has always been reinforced in schools and families. Even if we do not directly think that subjects are gendered, society has unconsciously turned STEM into somewhat of a hostile environment for women. 

Classrooms and jobs dominated by men, lack of female professors or fewer incentives in high school for girls to pursue STEM are some common examples that discourage their participation in the field. But it goes beyond that. 

Because of these stereotypes, being invalidated, ignored or explicitly overlooked are normal things for women to experience in the industry. It is not easy. Netflix's 2020 documentary, "Picture a Scientist," really puts this into perspective by showing us that the struggles of women in men-dominated areas are real.

This is a huge problem since it is crucial to have more women in STEM for the sake of innovation. Excluding a gender or a specific group from discoveries may ultimately have a negative impact. It will constrict spaces for diverse ideas, prohibit change and easily overlook new points of view. Besides, a diverse group of people is always more advantageous as the thought process and problem-solving are different for everyone, and what one is lacking, the other one can have in excess. 

Moreover and most importantly, the lack of women in STEM is contributing to the pay gap. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020, full-time working women made 83 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned, but it is worse in the case of STEM jobs. STEM occupations account for almost 7 percent of all U.S. jobs, and it is one of the higher-paying job groups. But a man in STEM earns about 26 percent more than a woman in STEM for median earnings. It is just as absurd as you just read.

Overall, closing the gender gap in STEM is necessary for society to get close to achieving gender equality, but doing it is an incredibly difficult task. Gendered stereotypes are incredibly hard to get rid of since they have been passed around for a long time, and people accept them as the norm. 

Besides that, changing the curriculum and hiring more women faculty requires funding, which could be challenging to implement. And most importantly, women feel uncomfortable. When there is little to no support or role models, and people constantly believe you are not as capable as your male counterparts solely due to your sex, it is no surprise that most girls chose to avoid men-filled majors and careers.

Even if they are not encouraged enough, and many outside factors are playing against them, it is still their choice to not go into STEM. But as a woman who has never been encouraged to follow any kind of math or science career, I would certainly consider changing my first choice of career if it was one dominated by men. The truth is that if the STEM atmosphere does not change to accommodate women, we may never really close that gap. 

Marina Benitez is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and minoring in gender and media. Her column, "Hear me out," 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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