Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math: How Have the Statistics Improved?

Antiquated gender norms ostracized women from pursuing higher education and contributing directly to the American economy for nearly two centennials. Until the 1970s, women comprised a largely untapped pool of talent in all areas of the economy but especially in the areas of natural science. The female brain was assumed to be “too delicate” and “less adapted” for the rigorousness of study that a career in science requires. Even in the uncommon instance when a woman did achieve the necessary level of education needed for a scientist, she was often met with harm, social criticism, and a blatant disregard of her work. This was the case with Esther Lederberg.

Born in 1922, scientist Esther Lederberg was never publicly acknowledged for her scientific contributions to the fields of microbiology and genetics despite discovering lambda phage, replica plating, and the bacterial fertility factor F. The lack of recognition was especially personal for Lederberg considering that her first husband, a molecular biologist, received all of the credit for their discoveries and was personally honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1958.

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At the conclusion of the second world war, more women began entering the workforce and have since expanded the American economy by over $2 trillion. In contemporary society, women represent half of the college-educated workforce in the United States and are flourishing in careers of law and medicine; however, females still only account for 29% of the total workforce in the fields of computer science and mathematics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise 20% of all computer science and engineering majors in university and that figure is steadily declining. In fact, the number of women reportedly interested in pursuing a major in computer science only has dropped nearly 79% between 2000-2008 despite a vastly growing industry.

Although there is no all-encompassing, clear-cut explanation, there are a number of highly-contested suggestions as to why so few women are pursuing careers in STEM despite the lessening societal pressures. Some assert that deep-set social misogyny persists to dissuade women against pursuing careers in STEM while others believe that a lack of interest and peer encouragement keeps girls from even considering entering the realm of STEM. The misconstrued notion that the female brain is not equipped also still exists today but to a lessened degree; contemporary data readily demonstrates that the achievement of female students in mathematics and science is on par with their male peers and that female students participate in high level mathematics and science courses at similar rates as their male peers with the exception of computer science and engineering.

Regardless of the circumstances or rationalizations, women still comprise a large pool of underutilized talent in the field of science. Recognizing the potential contributions of females to scientific innovation, former President Barack Obama powerfully noted, “One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to." 

Hoping to catalyze a change, President Obama and then-First Lady Michelle Obama began a global initiative, Let Girls Learn, which campaigned to encourage girls to go on and pursue secondary education. Additionally, the United Nations also recognizes the gender disparity in science and declared February 11th as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science with the aim of promoting ‘full and equal access to and participation in science’ for women. The UN noted that, “Science and gender equality are both vital’ for international development, but, sadly, women and girls are still largely excluded from the scientific arena.

As a female pursuing a college degree in biology, I have felt discouraged in my major due to the unwelcoming behavior of one of my male peers. In multiple instances, my first general chemistry lab partner would speak to me in a belittling tone and would direct me through the experiment as if I was not capable of conducting the entire experiment without his help to begin with. I have since moved to work on with far more respectful partners (both female and male) and have continued to enjoy the rigorous course of study in my major immensely. I am forever grateful of the incredibly resilient and persistent women of the past who blazed the trail for me to pursue my passion for science without social limitations.