Women in STEM: Barriers Females Face and How to Encourage More Girls to Pursue STEM Careers

Women in STEM: Barriers Females Face and How to Encourage More Girls to Pursue STEM Careers

In the television show Mad Men’s pilot episode, a veteran secretary is showing the new office girl the ropes. As she points out the electric typewriter she says, “Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated but the men who designed this made it simple enough for a woman to use.” Degrading as this is to us now, in the 1960s in which this show is set, sexist views were widespread.

However, thanks to our sisters who started the Women’s Liberation Movement and fought for equal rights, we enjoy a more gender balanced world (note: more balanced, but far from perfect); we have these women to thank for fighting for our rights, not sitting around and waiting for men to decide the worth of females. And they fought for more than the right to express sexual identity, they fought for the freedom of every woman and the right to freely express themselves. They fought to have equal access to education, work and economic opportunities without the fear of cultural and societal judgement.


We have certainly come a long way and yet after forty years of fighting for equality, the challenge is still there. Females face challenges in the home, in the workplace and especially in the fields of politics and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

According to a 2017 report from the Office of the Chief Economist at the US Department of Commerce, women are highly underrepresented; filling about 47% of all US jobs in 2015 with just 27% in STEM positions.

This disparity is evident across the board, even in business and in media. Forbes Magazine recently published a list of “100 Most Innovative Leaders” and 99 of them were men. Only one woman made it to the list– and her photo wasn’t even published! In response, Times Magazine editor-at-large Anand Giridharadas tweeted:”When a publication like Forbes has so many eyes on an article and it goes out with this grievous an error in judgment, it shows how so much of the current leadership class needs to go, frankly. These are the editors deciding what and who to publish, what stories to tell.”

But the question remains, what is hindering women from making it to the “top”? What barriers are they facing stopping them from achieving their full potential?

Social construct

When I was little, I would often hear that boys are better at math than girls. Being exposed to this notion, I believed it. This sort of cultural messaging is pervasive, molding females into accepting that through some sort of biological determinism they are just simply not “good with numbers” and thus perpetuating a cycle of beliefs that continues on to the next generation of women.

Related Post: Unstereotype: Can We Really Eliminate Gender Stereotypes?

Even when I was at school, social construct (in the form of culture and gender roles) was influential in determining academic choices. Boys were encouraged to take up subjects such as automotive and carpentry while girls were encouraged into classes such as Home Economics (which included sewing, cooking and embroidery skills). Thus from a young age, males are encouraged to acquire skills that are more ‘cerebral’ in nature, which help to develop their spatial abilities. As this skills gap widens in high school and into adulthood, it shows that males have an advantage when it comes to their careers; they have access to higher paid professional opportunities, such as those within the STEM disciplines. Females are subsequently left behind.

In March 2018, a study on the STEM gender disparity carried out by Microsoft drew the conclusion that the lack of female representation impacted how girls and young women viewed STEM professions, with 31% of girls believing that jobs that require programming or coding are “not for them”, a statistic that jumps to 58% by the time the girls are in college. However, the study also shows with exposure to female STEM role models, parental and teacher support and generating excitement about the accomplishments of engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians, female perspectives about STEM changes, and the inclination to pursue a STEM career doubles.

Marine biologist and dive tourism operator Ocean Ramsey is a prominent woman in STEM. Credit: TEDx Klagenfurt via Flickr.

Related Post: 8 Kick-Ass Women in STEM To Admire and Who Inspire Our Next Gen of Female Scientists

Since spatial reasoning is an important skill in science, technology, engineering and math, closing the STEM gender gap can be achieved if females are encouraged to engage spatially from an early age– whether they play with more building blocks and puzzles or draw and sketch in 3D.

Maternity care

While there has been an increase in the number of women holding STEM-related careers over the last decade, one factor that hinders women from reaching their fullest career potential in STEM and many other industries, is the lack of maternity and child care.

No access to parental leave or childcare are the main reasons women leave their careers. The United States for example is one of the few countries that has still not mandated paid maternity or parental leave.

On the upside, there are some US states that have mandated paid parental leave such as New York, New Jersey and California, to name a few. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which was enacted in 1993 provides eligible employees with 12 days of unpaid work leave although not all workers are eligible and it only benefits about 45% of women.

Nevertheless, with more and more women pursuing careers in STEM and the many benefits a gender diverse industry has to the society at large, major policy changes may be on the cards.

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