Why are there so few women in STEM fields?

Why are there so few women in STEM fields?

Is your physics class dominated by men? Mizu Nishikawa-Toomey investigates why


I asked my flatmate why she thinks women are so underrepresented in the science world, to which she replied: “perhaps women are just simply not interested in science.”  Although my need to immediately barrage this statement could not be suppressed, in hindsight I realised that I was one of two girls in my A level physics class of 20 students. Women make up only 25% of Physics undergraduates at UCL which is 5% more than the national average. Although it gives me some hope that our institution may be paving a way to increasing female presence in the physics world, those figures are disheartening to say the least.

So perhaps it is true that women are less interested in pursuing a scientific carrier than men, but why?

Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, wrote a controversial book published in 2004 titled The Essential Difference, outlining the differences in the psychology of men and women.

He concludes that there are two types of brains that can be placed on a spectrum. On one end we have S-types, which refer to people with an above average capacity to understand the workings of a system. On the other hand, we have E types, which refers to people who are good at emphasising.

Cohen believes that women lean towards the E type brain and men towards the S. As a result, women are more likely to play with dolls when they are younger, pursue jobs which require verbal and emotional skills, and confide in others about their problems. Men on the other hand are more likely to play with toy cars when they are younger, pursue scientific jobs and are more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

One of the first studies he mentions in the book consists of groups of children competing to play with the one toy available. The study showed that girls use verbal skills to negotiate to get their turn on the toy, whereas  the boys used more aggressive methods to force the toy off other children. The children in the study were 4 to 5, which he claims has implications of reduced levels of socialisation in the group.

Baron- Cohen argues that the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics, has been awarded to 54 men and 1 woman, supporting the evidence the men are naturally better at science than women. However, if you look at the list of poet laureates of Great Britain, a similar pattern emerges. The past 23 documented poet laureates where male apart from 1 female poet. If women are meant to have the E-type brains with greater verbal capacities, why have men have shown to excel in poetry?  Perhaps there is another factor other than possible brain differences inhibiting women’s success in science, which bring me on to the topic of socialisation.

In 2005, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development surveyed the science grades of 15 year olds in 65 developed countries. Girls outperform boys in most countries apart from Northern and Eastern Europe, and America. Does this suggest that cultural forces in Europe and America lead to girls under-performing compared to boys in scientific fields?

Dr. Snezana Djordjevic, a professor and researcher at the UCL Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, spoke at a lunch hour lecture on the topic of gender biases in Science and where its roots may lie.  She told me that she found moving to Britain in the early 2000s a huge culture shock.

“When I was growing up in former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), we didn’t have single sex education at any point in a child’s schooling. We didn’t have boy’s scouts and girl’s scouts, it was a single scouting organisation. We went camping in the mountains together, we learnt the same skills, and at no point were the badges earned by boys, any different to ones earned by the girls.”

She also expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that all the letters from her child’s school are addressed to her, and not her husband.  In addition to that, parent- teacher association meetings are at two o’clock in the afternoon.

“Although historical and economical situation in Serbia is now very different from what it used to be, I grew up in an environment  everybody worked, to the point that if you had a mother who didn’t work, it was embarrassing”.

Dr Djordjevic thinks that as a result of different economical, historical and religious factors, there are differences in cultures that may lead to reduced openness to talk about and campaign for gender equality. “Several years ago, I was surprised that when I asked my colleagues if they wanted to go for a drink on international women’s day, no one knew anything about it”.

Nevertheless, since the development of the EU and an influx of people from different cultures, awareness for women’s rights is being discussed more and more.

This topic is controversial  and can never be fully answered regardless of the number of experiments, surveys or data analyses.  However, The Fields Medal was won by Maryam Mirzakhani last year, making her the first woman to win the prize. Thanks to increased media coverage about equal opportunities for women, and students being encouraged to flourish in that environment, we may be starting to see a new generation of women in STEM.

Featured image: National Cancer Institute 

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