Women in STEM
Whether it’s due to societal pressures or lack of exposure, women are often underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, so many amazing women have contributed to the incredible feats in human engineering, science, technology, and mathematics. But why is there still a lack of women in these spaces? According to ‘STEM Women,’ women comprise 19% of students studying computer science-related degrees– whereas 81% are male. This is a huge gap that still needs addressing today. We at Cybernews Academy spoke to three individuals who specialize in separate areas of STEM to discuss the relationship between gender, STEM subjects, and how we can promote female representation in STEM.
Let's meets our panel:
- Dr. Shirley Disseler, CEO of BrickEd, North Carolina, United States
- Dr. Eleonora Giunchiglia, Post Doctoral Research Associate Technische Universitat Wien, Vienna, Austria
- Maria Klawe, Former President of Harvey Mudd College and Former Director of Microsoft, New York, United States
Women throughout history
There are a plethora of famous women who have revolutionized STEM through their incredible efforts in engineering and innovation. As said by Dr. Shirley Disseler, “STEM is in everything.” it’s an integral part of society and general human life. Therefore, all humankind should participate in STEM subjects. We have noted a few female figures that are well-known in STEM history.
- Marie Curie - a famous French-Polish physicist and chemist, went to Paris to study physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne. Marie Curie, alongside her husband, worked to investigate radioactivity. Curie’s research was essential in the development of X-rays and the discovery of polonium and radiation, which contributed massively to finding cancer treatments.
- Grace Hopper - an American computer scientist, mathematician, and United States Navy rear admiral. Hopper graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics, a master’s degree from Yale, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer, one of the first computers used in World War Two. Hopper pioneered computer programming as she invented one of the first linkers, a computer system program that takes one or more object files and combines them.
- Creola Kathrine Johnson - an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics at NASA were crucial in the success of the first U.S. crewed space flights. She helped pioneer the use of computers to perform calculations and tasks. She graduated from West Virginia State University with a degree in mathematics and French.
- Mae Jemison - an American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut, became the first black woman to travel into space. She graduated from Stanford University with degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies. In addition, she earned her medical degree at Cornell University
Many more exceptional women fall within this category, almost too many to mention. But why don’t we discuss women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics roles more often? Let’s inspect the current STEM landscape and see where STEM education is today.
Although more women are in STEM roles in the 21st century, we still have a long way to go in getting more young girls and women interested in the subjects. Maria Klawe, the former president of Harvey Mudd College and previous director of Microsoft, sat down with Cybernews Academy to discuss the current state of STEM education. She explained her motivations behind the women in STEM movement and that she has “been passionate about getting more women into areas of STEM where they’re underrepresented.” At present, there are more men in certain regions of STEM. For example, men dominate areas such as Computer Science, Physics, and Engineering. The current landscape is becoming a more accepting environment for women in the STEM field; however, there is still work to be done.
There is a common misconception that men and women are predisposed to enjoy and excel at different subjects. Typically, boys enjoy engineering, toy cars, and STEM subjects. On the other hand, girls are expected to engage in the more ‘feminine’ facets of life, playing with toys like baby dolls that relate to their natural maternal instincts. This belief is not rooted in anything biological; instead, it is ingrained into society, as Eleonora Giunchiglia, a research assistant at Technische Universitat Wien and former PhD student at the University of Oxford, posits. These biases aren’t only constructed; they are forged in early childhood. “I think it starts from a very young age. If you think about the toys that boys are given versus girls, it’s very different.” Like Eleonora, Shirley Disseler, CEO of BrickEd, believes that women and men aren’t predisposed to like certain things.“I played with Barbie dolls, but I liked GI Joe's better. Now my children played with all kinds of toys that weren’t gender specific.” It may not be the types of toys that a child plays with that determines their interest in STEM. However, it may be the first interaction that a person has with the subject. This is why it is of the utmost importance to dismantle these stereotypes and afford all individuals the opportunity to explore the STEM field, no matter their gender. If we want to change the gendered nature of subjects, then we must dismantle the way society is structured.
Importance of diversity in STEM
The importance of diversity in various facets of society is a point that has yet to be debated. Diversity within the industry sparks innovation and creativity, all while exercising some of our critical skills like collaboration and communication. According to Maria Klawe, diversity in STEM subjects is essential. “There are three reasons for the need for diversity in STEM education. The first reason is to meet the demand in the industry. If there aren’t many people studying these subjects and technologies or understanding how these technologies work, then there won’t be a demand for these subjects. The second reason is that there are excellent career opportunities available today, particularly in Computer Science, Data Science, and AI. The third and arguably most significant reason is the need for diverse teams.” Overall, diversity is crucial when working with diverse and complex subjects such as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, as the myriad problems rooted in STEM require different solutions to solve them.
Obstacles and challenges
Unsurprisingly, there are challenges and obstacles that women face when it comes to integrating into STEM subjects. Maria Klawe explained that intellectuals and academics didn’t understand why she wanted to pursue a career in STEM. “My professors said, Maria, you have so many other talents. Why are you majoring in math?” During her time at university in 1968, there were many trials and tribulations that Maria had to face. “My professors would tell me it’s going to be way harder for me to succeed in this topic because nobody’s going to expect me to be good at this.” At the time, the culture of mathematics was not going to support women in these fields. However, this didn’t stop Maria: “I’m incredibly stubborn, and this attitude towards women in STEM just made me want to stick with it even more.” Over 50 years later, some of these issues are still apparent in STEM today, as evidenced by Eleonora Giunchiglia. “There are a lot of barriers in terms of women integrating into STEM subjects. It’s not like evil people are trying to keep women out of STEM subjects. It’s the way society is structured which makes it more difficult for girls to participate in STEM subjects.”
Despite the valiant work done by women to inspire others to engage in STEM subjects, there is still work to be done. Maria Klawe believes "a massive part of getting more women interested in STEM is how we teach." Klawe explains that we must dismantle the structures that have upheld this notion that women shouldn't participate in STEM. Klawe mentions that she has given talks in different countries with a "tradition in STEM, a belief that boys are better at STEM and other subjects than girls. This is nonsense," she exclaimed. In some regions of the world, this understanding that boys are better than girls at science, technology, engineering, and maths still reigns supreme. "Many people still believe that teaching mathematics to girls seems unnecessary because they're just not good at it and therefore aren't interested in STEM." Klawe said this is "a dangerous way of thinking, and we need to ensure that women are taught in such a way where they believe they can succeed." Furthermore, Shirley Disseler believes that the one thing we have to do if we're going to change how STEM subjects are perceived is to introduce young women to the subject early in their lives. "We can work with STEM camps and summer programs targeting women." Working directly with women and showing this group of people that STEM is from them is one way of making a difference.
Success in STEM
There have been various success stories regarding the amazing women who have impacted science, technology, engineering, and mathematics positively. Some of those women featured above have forged the way for the younger generation to pursue these academic journeys and technical careers. Some personal success stories closer to home are those of our speakers. Maria Klawe explained that her initiatives and work to get more women into STEM education were a great success at her previous university. “When I arrived at Harvey Mudd College, there were between 10% and 15% female in their Computer Science majors and about 20% to 25% in their Physics and Engineering majors.” Within four years of Maria being the president of Harvey Mudd College, these percentages increased dramatically. “The numbers went up to 40% and 50% in Computer Science, Physics, and Engineering subjects.” This achievement demonstrates the importance of inspiring other women to pursue STEM education. Eleonora Giunchiglia discussed her successful participation in the Oxford Women in Computer Science, where she, with other members and professors, would attend schools in the area as a part of outreach events. “We were doing a lot of outreach events that encourage other women to come and pursue a STEM education at university. Overall, it was a very positive experience.” Eleonora and Maria demonstrate the power of outreach and representation when advocating for women in STEM. Another vital factor that should encourage more women to pursue new opportunities in STEM is mentorship.
So, why aren’t more women interested in STEM subjects? Is it that women aren’t interested, or is it that they have never seen themselves in these subjects? The importance of mentorship cannot be ignored when it comes to encouraging diversity in STEM. Klawe expressed just how essential mentors are to women in the STEM field. We want to see people in the STEM field who resonate with us. Whether professionally or academically, we want to see ourselves represented in the achievements of others. That’s where mentorship comes in. Mentorship is exceptionally significant in STEM subjects, as this helps an individual build a relationship not only with that person but with the subject itself. Maria Klawe stated that “we should steer women towards fantastic female engineers, towards physicists, and amazing computer scientists who are women.” Eleonora described when she remembers connecting with the subject through a female role model. “I think it was great for me to connect with my master's thesis supervisor. She was a powerful woman, and she does machine learning for healthcare, which is a super important topic. Seeing her do so well and having representation in your field matters.” Eleonora explained that having mentorship and being represented in your field is massively important, as it shows that women can be strong, they can be fearless, they can be demanding, women can be all of those things.
Forecasting Females in STEM
The future of women in STEM burns brighter than ever before. Over the past decade, we have witnessed strides in gender diversity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and this should only continue to grow with the advancement of new technologies. As more women pursue careers in STEM, we anticipate that the scientific community will become more innovative and creative as time progresses. Initiatives that support women in STEM are on the rise while stereotypes and societal barriers are being dismantled. The future of women in STEM is not simply about closing the gender gap. It is about securing the diverse range of voices and experiences that will enrich the scientific community, drive progress, and continue to spark innovation.