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Women in STEM: Nature vs Culture

by on Dec.12, 2014, under Tech

From government-backed programs to nationwide organizational efforts, everyone is trying to encourage girls to develop an interest in math and science and steer more women towards careers in engineering and the hard sciences.  Unfortunately, these efforts may come too late in the pipeline.  It’s not that girls do not naturally have an interest in math and science, but they are culturally coerced away from these paths at a young age by societal examples and expectations. Sticking girls in programming classes, whether if they are in all-girl classes or are a lone wolf in a forest full of boys is not going to help the matter if society doesn’t also train the boys to treat girls as equals in the math and science disciplines.  Moreover, girls need positive female role models in the field.  Women engineers beget more women engineers and if a woman pursues and sticks with an engineering field, she can help encourage her daughters and their peers and truly drive the point home that women are just as capable as men and that science and engineering need women’s perspectives to more effectively solve problems. However, even if girls are raised to have faith in their own skills, cultural shifts in the workplace must occur to retain women in the workforce.

Women tend to be more self-conscious of their failings then men.  Radia Perlman, despite being one of the great minds behind the spanning tree protocol that helped make the internet possible, was once too intimidated to succeed in a programming course her professor encouraged her to attend because all of the other students in the course were already far more confident with programming and engineering.  Only after a college TA asked her to learn programming to help him with a project did she gain confidence to develop the skills. Even with all of her successes as a female computer scientist, she was often the lone female in her Computer Science classes at MIT and throughout much of her professional career. She notes that while she did enjoy math and science as a child, she didn’t exhibit the typical stereotype of the child who constantly dissembles and reassembles stuff in an effort to discover their makeup. She did, however, have a mother who was a computer programmer, so she definitely had a positive, female role-model in the field. Radia emphasizes that engineers solve problems, and diversity is important because it diversities perspectives and thoughts that can help solve problems more creatively and efficiently.

Beth Holloway, the director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University, agrees that women voices are missing in a lot of engineering disciplines even though they are essential to represent other women. Female perspectives are necessary to help better solve problems for a larger percentage of the population. The lack of female input has led to major oversights over the years including misdiagnosing heart attacks in the genders because of different symptoms, and improper medicine dosages because dosage amounts were based on the size of the average male. Additionally, the scientific questions and engineering problems that get addressed are largely chosen by those doing the research or the designing, so having more perspectives means that more problems that people face on a daily basis have a higher chance of being solved. Women are also often raised to be more socially conscious than men and having these skills throughout the employment pipeline can strengthen and balance a workforce.

Even if more women pursue STEM careers, a balanced and accepting work environment is necessary to retain women in the STEM workforce. The tech sector is often overrun with testosterone-filled “brogrammers” and the environment is often too hostile for women to feel ‘safe’ to learn and make mistakes. Perhaps it is the tech sector’s reputation but women who do pursue STEM careers are often driven towards lesser paying fields, such as nutritional sciences, rather than math-intensive fields such as computer science. Those who do go into the math-intensive STEM professions may feel compelled to leave because of the “chilly climate” or because of the difficulty with balancing a career and raising children. Moreover, while computing jobs are increasing, the number of people pursuing computing degrees and careers are declining. The declining interest in pursing computing professions is especially high with women; women working in the IT professions have actually dropped from 36% to 25% between 1991 and 2008. Many women who end up leaving the STEM professions are highly trained and competent, but find it prohibitively difficult to balance child-rearing, home-keeping, and a demanding career in STEM.

Motherhood should not be a death-knell for a women in a STEM career, but oftentimes it is. Men with children are commonly perceived by employers as more responsible than their childless peers and are promoted more while the opposite is true for women with children. Culturally, women still spend far more hours tending household needs than men and women are often expected to exhibit irregular hours to tend to young children, which makes it especially difficult to advance in a demanding career when the unspoken rule is that arriving early and leaving late is necessary to succeed. Coincidentally (or perhaps cruelly), the peak of female fertility is aligned with the critical early to mid career years and present women with the choice to swim against the current or sink. Asking women to do the majority of home-making and child-rearing, while also maintaining face-time at a demanding career is unreasonable. Some women opt for extended leave until their children are of school-age, however this leaves many women feeling incapable of returning; technology changes so quickly in some tech fields that the entire landscape could change with an absence of 2-5 years.

Some companies, such as Apple and Facebook, are attempting to remedy the work/motherhood conflict by including egg-freezing as part of the corporate benefits packages. However, this just reinforces the belief that women cannot contribute meaningfully at work while also raising children. Moreover, while these companies are attempting to reach out to women who may elect to delay motherhood for career advancement, they are ignoring the incredibly high failure rate of frozen eggs resulting in live birth and the preceding emotional toll on women who desire motherhood but could not achieve it later in life. These types of policies send a message to women that if they have children early or mid-career it will count against them, and that employers see motherhood as a detriment.

No one is asking for a free pass, and it is reasonable to expect that someone who does not put in the work and time should not attain seniorship or tenure as fast as someone who can. That said, policies and programs should be enacted to enable both men and women to seek parenthood without permanently stalling their career. Potential policies could include time off for both men and women to switch primary care-giver roles while caring for infants, temporary part-time until children can be in daycare, and possibly job function switching until children can attend grade-school. Job switching does not have to entail a move down but could be move sideways or even up, such as a temporary role in planning and less in development, or some task that is more straightforward to do or can support irregular schedules. Policies should encourage both parents to seek personal life fulfillment while still keeping them on the path to professional success to ensure that qualified talent can remain in the workforce.

Unfortunately, girls are often conditioned out of the STEM fields long before they are chased out. Simply put, girls are discouraged from doing ‘boy things’ such as playing in the dirt, building rockets, or other perceptively ‘gender inappropriate’ activities. According to the National Center for Women in Technology, 66% of 4th grade girls express an interest in science and math yet less than 18% actually pursue a engineering field in college. Societal stereotypes push girls away from the STEM fields at the same time it pushes boys toward it. Just take a look at the toy store, which color codes toys by gender and where, by default, parents gravitate toward the girl section for their daughters. Girl toys are pink and are designed to train girls to raise babies, clean, and cook. Boy toys are blue and green and are designed to teach boys to build things and explore the world. While there is nothing wrong with either of those activities, picking one or the other culturally trains children to stick with gender stereotypes.

To create equality in their children’s future potential, parents should disregard the color and gender specification of toys and instead evaluate and purchase toys based on the toy’s qualities and ability to teach their children how to innovate and think creatively. Giving your daughter a Barbie at the same time that you give your son a Lego set, demonstrates that you expect your daughter to be less capable of being an engineer or builder than your son. Girls subconsciously absorb these cultural indicators, and may ultimately try less hard in those tougher subjects and therefore reinforce that training. Carmen Valverde-Paniagua, a senior mechanical engineering student at Purdue states that she was more inspired by her mother, who was an industrial engineer, rather than her toys. Her mother’s career influence was essential to combat the lack of engineering-related toys for girls. As a student in a Purdue course where engineering students produce tech-focused toys for children, Valverde-Paniagua intentionally picked gender-neutral colors so that children of both genders can play together without pre-conceived stereotypes.

A major cultural shift cannot happen overnight, so it is crucial to build girls’ confidence that they have full power over their ability to achieve in STEM subjects before those negative messages hit. This goes both ways. Stop asking only your daughters to help cook and invite your sons. Start asking all of your children, regardless of gender, to help you do mechanical and electrical work around the house or to help fix up that old Mustang. Who knows, inviting your daughter to help you work on the family car could inspire a successful career in automotive engineering, a field that also is in need of female engineers and benefits greatly from their contributions.

Alba Colon, who grew up in Puerto Rico as the daughter of a doctor and a teacher, was initially inspired by Sally Ride and wanted to be an astronaut. She earned a degree in mechanical engineering, ended up pursuing a career in automotive engineering and is now the lead engineer for Chevy Racing. She is a successful leader in the field and now tells her story to students from kindergarten to universities, trying to hook them when they are young, and giving hope to kids whose parents may not have even finished high school, to show them what someone just like them achieved. Colon credits her father, with whom she spent much time studying, and who demonstrated the beauty of math to her.

Computing should be taught as a fundamental skill to all children regardless of gender or background. Computer Science is essentially logic and problem solving, both of which are important life skills, even for non-engineers.  Logic and problem solving are used everywhere, from navigating traffic, to playing video games, to cooking. Unfortunately for many K-12 students, Computer Science courses are offered only as electives rather than as courses that are integrated into the curriculum. Many kids do not have the resources or innate ‘talent’ to pursue these extra courses. That does not mean they are incapable, just that don’t have the means to fully utilize the limited resources that are passively offered to them. Moreover girls are often severely outnumbered in these classes and are often left to ‘fend for themselves.’ Ideally, to simultaneously teach students to work together with people from all backgrounds, these courses would be gender and ethnically diverse, similar to the CoderDojo NYC courses that were co-founded by Rebecca Garcia. Garcia is a programmer who was initially attracted to programming because of the online game, NeoPets, which lets players customize pet shops and was very popular with girls.

Many kids are interested in video games and to capture kids interest, we should inject Computer Science where their passions lie. Rather than stifle their screen time, parents and schools can take advantage of the already popular world-building tools that exist in games such as Minecraft. Piggybacking off of already popular media is a fantastic way to capture kids interests and provide relevance as they learn about computing. Disney Interactive and have created a programming tutorial for girls based off of the popular movie, Frozen. The tutorial is taught by female tech role models, such as Microsoft Engineer Paola Mejia and model/mobile app developer Lyndsey Scott, who instruct girls on programming concepts as they move the characters from the movie around to etch a snowflake into the snow. 

This is great insofar as it meets girls where their interests lie. In this case, it’s something cutsey involving a girl-oriented cartoon and drawing a snowflake. This is a good ice-breaker (pun intended) to programming, and the snowflake drawing app could then be extended by introducing girls into other domains beyond princesses and drawing and instead show girls how they can solve real-life, goal-oriented applications. For example, they could translate their skills by using a different GUI to program a robot to traverse and find something in a building using GPS and a camera. The real power of this specific resource is that it is taught by real women technologists.  Lyndsey in particular demonstrates that you don’t have to pursue either a female-oriented career, like modeling, or a male-oriented career, like programming, but that you can do both.  Girls don’t have to deny their feminine side to do something that is often seen as masculine, and having a strong female role model that has successfully balanced those two worlds is extremely powerful in the effort to increase girls’ interests in the tech disciplines.

To increase the number of women pursuing STEM careers, society must do more than encourage women to enter the field. Gender stereotypes imposed by society must be aggressively tackled early and as often as possible to ensure that girls attain and maintain confidence in their ability to succeed in STEM topics. Moreover, any programming courses aimed to at teaching children programming should be equally diverse in gender and race to teach people at a young age to work together and that anyone has the capacity and right to succeed. Additionally, girls need positive female role-models working the STEM fields; if at all possible, this person should be the mother or other close female figure who can simultaneously teach the girl traditional female roles while also demonstrating that women are fully capable of succeeding in traditional male roles. Finally, something must be done to support women in the STEM professions who want to also pursue motherhood. Silently requesting that women put off motherhood until they are less biologically viable, or enabling a stressful imbalance between maintaining a career and maintaining a household is detrimental to all of society because the crucial engineering problems that humanity faces require the input of both genders.


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