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The STEM Gap: Why There Are So Few Women in STEM Fields & What We Can Do About It

What is The STEM Gap?

The STEM gap is the term used to describe the lack of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics compared to the number of men in those same fields. The STEM Gap is also associated with the Confidence Gap and the Pay Gap. 

According to The United States Census Bureau, women make up approximately 48% of the entire workforce, but only 27% of STEM workers. This represents an increase since 1970 when women made up only 8% of STEM workers, however, we are still nowhere close to closing the gap. 

Why is there a gap to begin with?

This severe lack of women pursuing careers and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is caused by many different factors, including:

1. Lack of women role models in STEM fields

Because of the smaller percentage of women in STEM careers coupled with today’s male-dominated culture, there are fewer role models in media, books and popular culture that can spark young girls’ interest in STEM-related fields. There are even fewer role models for Black women in these fields. 

For example, did you know that it was actually a woman, Margaret A. Wilcox, who invented the car heater? Or that a woman, Hedy Lamarr, invented wireless transmission technology, paving the way for WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth inventions? Probably not, but I bet you knew Alexander Graham Bell invented the first practical telephone; you probably even learned about him in school. 

This lack of female role models and the abundance of male role models promotes the notion that careers in STEM are only for men to enjoy and pursue, which is just not true. This subconsciously influences society, because of how prominent the media is in today’s culture. 

2. Gender Stereotypes & Culture

STEM fields are, more often than not, viewed as masculine fields in today’s society. Because of this, both parents and teachers often subconsciously underestimate or even completely ignore girls’ mathematical abilities starting at a very young age. On top of this, because there are fewer women in STEM, environments in these fields of work and study are often exclusionary and not supportive of women or minorities. 

Additionally, studies show that teachers are grading girls harder than boys in math classes due to their subconscious lack of confidence in the girls’ math abilities. This may also be partially due to female teachers’ lack of confidence in their own math abilities which they project onto their students. 

3. Lack of confidence

Because of the lack of role models coupled with exclusionary, male-dominated environments and gender stereotypes, many girls often lose their confidence in math and science at a very young age, and never regain it. A study by the University of Illinois shows that girls may lose confidence in their math abilities by the third grade while boys are more likely to feel confident in math by the 2nd grade before there is any evident performance differentiation between genders. 

Girls are also more likely to be harder on themselves than boys who perform at similar achievement levels. This may be because of society being harder on them as a whole, and therefore girls feel they have to prove themselves. 

What is the confidence gap?

The confidence gap stems from the idea that, biologically, men have a higher cognitive ability compared to girls, and therefore men are much better at math; an idea that is simply untrue. There is zero evidence available that shows any biological differences in cognitive abilities between women and men in mathematics. As previously mentioned, women’s lack of confidence stems at a young age from gender stereotypes, male-dominated culture and teachers passing math anxiety down to their students. 

There is also an alarming number of girls and women who are flat-out told they are not smart enough or good enough to go into a STEM field. These can create negative effects on a girl’s confidence and self-worth for years to come and in other areas of their lives aside from just math and science. 

What is the pay gap?

This lack of confidence is further driven into females as they grow up and learn that if they were to go into a STEM field, they would earn $15,000 less per year than their male counterparts for doing the same job with the same qualifications. For Black and Latina women, the gap is even wider with these women making around $33,000 less on average per year. This is known as the pay gap, and it exists everywhere, but very prominently in STEM careers. 

What can be done to close the STEM gap?

1. Talk about it

If no one knows about the STEM gap, nothing can change. Raising awareness of the STEM gap is the first step in creating an equal environment and opportunity for women to pursue careers in mathematics, science, technology and engineering. Parents should be made aware of how they can encourage their daughters through math and science classes and support a positive learning environment through these courses. 

Talking about women role models in the STEM world is also an important aspect of raising awareness, creating support and providing confidence for girls interested in pursuing STEM fields. Providing girls with role models gives them someone to look up to and learn from when it comes to STEM education and careers. 

2. Provide women & girls with the confidence and skills they need to succeed in STEM fields. 

Starting at a young age, girls should be encouraged to pursue math and science should they show any interest, instead of being told they, “aren’t smart enough,” or, “should focus on other subjects,” just because of their gender. An emphasis on promoting a growth mindset in girls could empower girls to embrace any challenges as they learn math rather than immediately turning them away. 

3. Improve STEM education and support for girls

Girls should be encouraged to take math and science classes, and be exposed to engineering and computer sciences in their K-12 education. Creating and promoting STEM education programs that engage women of all ages and backgrounds can increase awareness and spark interest in different math and science fields. 

Encouraging college-age women to look into STEM fields is another major step in closing the STEM Gap. Prioritizing inclusive, respectful and diverse environments within these classes is also important in gaining and retaining women in science, technology, engineering and math majors. 

4. Create a more inclusive STEM culture 

Providing equal pay, job opportunities and an inclusive environment would encourage more women to pursue fields in STEM. Actively recruiting female employees in STEM jobs and providing these women with equal pay and promotion opportunities could also greatly increase women’s likeliness to pursue these careers. No one wants to be in an environment where they feel unwanted or unappreciated, so creating an improved environment is vital to closing the STEM Gap for good.

Kate is a sophomore Mechanical Engineering student with a concentration in Biomedical Engineering at Bradley University. In her free time, she enjoys shopping, watching Netflix, working out, creating art projects, and cuddling with her dog and two cats. Kate is the Assistant Graphic Designer on Bradley University Her Campus's Social Media Team as well as Public Relations Exec Chair for Epsilon Sigma Alpha, a member of Society of Women in Engineering, and a member of Bradley's Honors Program.
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