The STEM Gender Gap

Commentary from a software engineer on the root cause of the gender gap in science, technology, math and engineering.

Commentary from a software engineer on the root cause of the gender gap in science, technology, math and engineering.

By Amanda Peterson

When it comes to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), women are vastly outnumbered by men. Although women account for 39% of jobs globally, they only account for 28% of STEM positions, according to Catalyst, a non-profit focused on building workplaces for women. Even fewer women maintain board positions, totaling just 12.2%. Women who do have careers in STEM however, only make 79 cents for every dollar a man earns in the same position, according to the organization.

Though it can’t be explicitly determined where these ideas come from, it is apparent in that these stereotypes begin to affect girls around the age of six and progress as young women get older, according to an article by American Association of University Women (AAUW). A recent by the AAUW study of five-year-old boys and girls showed children in that age group believe that anyone can be “really, really smart,”  regardless of gender. The same study found that girls six and older believe boys are much more likely to be brilliant.

It’s easy to conclude that these stereotypes start in early adolescence from these findings, but it remains difficult to pinpoint their origin. A recent gender-science IAT study found that more than 70% of people associate men with careers in science and women with careers in the arts. Some will point to biological predispositions or preconceived notions that only men can be successful in STEM careers. Though these beliefs are deeply ingrained, meta-analyses show that there is actually very little difference in performance between boys and girls throughout school subjects.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Based on 100 studies of over 3 million children, it’s been shown that girls actually outperform boys across the board in primary school, perform equally to boys in middle school, and are only slightly and inconsistently behind boys at the high school level, according to The Guardian’s “Bridging the gender gap: why do so few girls study STEM subjects?” When it comes to complex problem-solving, there is minimal evidence to suggest that males are better suited for STEM studies. The gender gap in STEM careers could have much more to do with the self-efficacy of each gender and the idea instilled in women that they simply don’t fit in a more scientific world. Therefore, the idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, the idea that women did not belong in STEM careers has become so widespread that in August 2017, Google employee James Damore expressed his beliefs on the subject in a company-wide memo. Damore’s note conveyed his opinions that the gender gap should not be attributed to sexism but rather, women’s inability to handle the job requirements and pressures that come with STEM careers due to their biological makeup. This memo is just one example of how deeply ingrained these ideas are in society. Not only were Damore’s facts scientifically wrong, they also fail to account for the fact that women were actually many of the first programmers.

More Equality Doesn't Equal More STEM

It seems likely that countries with the highest rates of gender equality would also have the highest numbers of women in STEM related careers however, it has proven to be the opposite. In countries like the United States, women make up only 24% of the workforce in STEM careers according to the US Department of Commerce. For comparison, in Algeria, that number is 41% and in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar, the number of women in STEM is also significantly higher.

Specialists attribute the fact that women in countries with less equality seek financial freedom. High-paying STEM careers are the most direct, and sometimes only path to that freedom. On the opposite side of this, the fact that only a quarter of women in the US hold high-paying STEM positions has been attributed to the fact that they do have a plethora of career choices and have no need to seek the one that would give them the best chance of escaping dominant fathers or husbands.

“Some would say that the gender STEM gap occurs not because girls can’t do science, but because they have other alternatives, based on their strengths in verbal skills,” notes Professor Janet Shibley Hyde in The Atlantic article “The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM.” “In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.”

The gender gap in careers involving science, technology, engineering, and math may have more to do with gender stereotypes and a belief that females are simply not good at STEM subjects, or that women have the ability to choose other careers. The true reason likely lies in some combination of the two.


Amanda Peterson is a co-founder of Enlightened Digital and software engineer from New York City. When she's not trying to find the best record stores, you can find her curled up watching Netflix with with her adorable Puggle, Hendrix.

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