Challenges Faced by Women in STEM

As college students, we’ve all probably heard about the issue of the small number of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Many believe that we must get to the root of the problem—if we can get more young girls interested in STEM, the issue will gradually fade away. While this is true to a certain extent, there are various other issues in the workplace and beyond that we must tackle in order to create true change.

In August 2015, unexpected sexist responses to an ad involving a female engineer led to an opportunity to shed light on gender issues faced by people working in the STEM industry. Isis Wenger, a One Login Platform engineer, was rather indifferent when she was chosen for the company’s ad and definitely didn’t expect the criticism it received. Some people said she wasn’t making the “right face” and others said she was a misrepresentation of “what female engineers look like.” In order to spread awareness on diversity in STEM and redefine what “an engineer should look like,” Isis created the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer. The movement helped people realize that you do not need to fit into a cookie cutter mold to be an engineer and put a spotlight on sexism in the industry.

Furthermore, in nearly all fields of STEM, there is a retention problem: close to 40 percent of women with engineering degrees do not end up working in the field. Why could this be? The Harvard Business Review cited a number of possibilities. First of all, women have to prove themselves many more times than men do, simply because people unconsciously assume that they got where they are out of sheer luck or solely due to their gender. Another challenge is combating the idea that femininity is seen as incompetence. Women need to behave in masculine ways in order to be seen as competent, but are also expected to be feminine.

Discrimination is also a huge barrier, as illustrated by the #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign. While many would think that the desire to balance work-life with family is a huge challenge for women, the lack of encouragement regarding the subject is an even larger problem. Often, they run into a wall, and their dedication is questioned.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go to combat the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism many female engineers face at their job, as well as a widespread prejudice that suggests STEM isn’t suitable for women. But we are taking small steps in the right direction. #ILookLikeAnEngineer