By Miriam Spak (Freshman)
“Women in STEM.” Chances are, you’ve heard this phrase sometime in the past few years. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, and its usage has become more and more popular. But what exactly does it mean to be a woman in STEM? How far have we come in supporting women in STEM areas? And what more do we still need to accomplish?
The phrase “women in STEM” was born as part of an attempt to solve a huge problem: the vast underrepresentation of women in these fields. For most of history, women were expected to stay at home and take care of children, and most universities wouldn’t admit women for a very long time. This led to extremely few women pursuing the science and mathematics; according to the United States census, women made up eight percent of workers in STEM fields in 1970, and they made up twenty-seven percent in 2019. As a result of recent waves of feminism, the movement to encourage women to enter these fields was created.
Unfortunately, too often this movement is combated by people who believe women are no longer oppressed in these fields and are met with encouragement rather than discrimination in the workplace. This ignores the presence of everyday sexism, particularly in STEM environments. “I am often the only woman or one of the only women in the room. It can get intimidating, and it has definitely affected my performance,” Aastha Singh, a senior, told me. A key sentiment, agreed upon by everyone I asked, was that men are automatically treated as if they are the authority on any given STEM topic. “Men are seen to be more ‘reliable’ sources,” Talynn Allen, a freshman, said. Women are never given this benefit of the doubt and instead have to prove themselves worthy of basic respect. “There have been many times where my contributions have been looked over, or I have been talked over, or I have been shunted in the corner,” Aastha added.
From the perspective of Annabel Degenholtz, a junior, “science is a collaboration. You have to work with your peers [and] support them, but you also need them to support you, and if you’re being treated less than it makes that essential collaborative part of science more difficult.” Talynn added that, “when you’re in the minority… you feel like you’re not seen as much.” The lack of support for women in STEM hurts society at large, as any potential benefits from their work are squandered. Fixing inequality in STEM fields will greatly benefit the lives of both scientists and researchers.
To end gender inequality in STEM, institutions need to do more than the bare minimum. “Schools and organizations need to be proactively trying to get more women involved in STEM, specifically in technology. Removing barriers won’t counteract pre-existing biases… we have to actively work,” Aastha said. Annabel said, “We also need to work on removing the social barriers that keep women and femme presenting people out of STEM fields. This means respecting women and femme presenting people in the lab and treating them equally.” Equality isn’t only about fixing lab environments; it’s also about creating a culture where women don’t need to second-guess themselves and are regarded as competent in the way men already are.
Although there is still much work to be done, great strides have already and continue to be made, both internationally and locally. The United Nations has made February 11th the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science,” and the National Science Foundation now releases reports on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities” in science and engineering fields. In Pittsburgh, programs such as Carnegie Mellon University’s “Tech Nights” serve to get young girls engaged in STEM, and the University of Pittsburgh’s “Gene Team” summer program is half-comprised of women. Although the work to end gender bias and inequality is difficult, it is essential. Millions of people are fighting to finally achieve a truly fair workplace and greater world. Change is already on the way, as this movement shows no sign of slowing down. “Women in STEM” are going to be everywhere.