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Where the problem STEMs from

  • Published at 07:22 am May 19th, 2018
Female Student

There are two prevalent stereotypes – that girls are not as good as boys in math, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are widely regarded as critical to the national economy. Globally, women have made tremendous progress in education and the workplace during the past 50 years. In the scientific domain, however, women’s educational gains have been less dramatic, and their progress in the workplace still slower. In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law and business, why are so few women becoming scientists and engineers?

Multiple factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM and, therefore, multiple solutions are needed to correct the imbalance. There are multiple social and environmental factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM, and shape girls’ achievements and interests in STEM. The climate of college and university science and engineering departments is extremely important in this. 

There are two prevalent stereotypes – that girls are not as good as boys in math, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men. These negative and completely untrue stereotypes influence girls' performances in this field. On top of that, workplace environment and family responsibilities all play a role in hindering women's participation. 

We need to immediately expose girls to successful female role models in math and science and break the stereotypes from an early age. All children should be praised for their efforts and intellectual skills, and they should be taught to value growth and learning. Playing with building toys and other things that teach spatial skills from an early age is a good idea for both girls and boys. 

At the university level, we need to actively recruit female students, review admissions policies to ensure that departments are not unintentionally “weeding out” potentially successful female students and provide mentoring for junior faculty. However, none of this will make a difference without implementing effective work-life balance policies to support faculty. 

It is up to schools, departments, and workplaces to cultivate a culture of respect and reduce stereotypes about women in STEM. However, there is a crucial change that also needs to be made at the family level. Even though more women are being involved in the sciences, almost all of them are still doing the majority of their household work. Women are expected to work but also look after their households and their families. 

There is a saying that “heaven is beneath the feet of your mother”, but in our societies, it seems to be under your mother-in-law's feet as well. As long as the men in our societies continue to put unreasonable pressures on their spouses and daughters to do all of the care work at home, it will be very difficult to include more and more women into STEM subjects. 

Dr Shahida Rafique is Founder and Chairman of Institute of Science and Technology, National University

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