5 barriers women face in STEM careers

Women in an audience at a Women STEM workshop

Written by Olivia Warfield, Contributing writer and media relations specialist for DiversityInc Best Practices

Fortunately, blatant gender discrimination has almost virtually disappeared. However, professional women are no strangers to the subtleties of alienation that exist in the working world; this holds true especially in STEM careers where analytical and technical skills reign supreme. The number of women holding careers in STEM fields are traditionally and disproportionately low as compared to men. Barriers women face in this regard arise from multiple conditions. Below, the primary and highest recurring obstacles faced by women in STEM are detailed. Honest conversations about these issues are necessary for the progress of equal opportunity.

1. Double Competence

Women often feel great pressure to prove their professional worth repeatedly. One women (a statistician) surveyed by Joan C. Williams reported, “People just assume you’re not going to be able to cut it.” This feeling has been reported in both professional workplaces and university settings. According to the study “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering”, multiple highly-qualified women in science report perceiving ongoing questioning about their ability and overall commitment to their respective disciplines. This feeling reportedly intensifies as women move up a career ladder into higher-level positions.

2. Misunderstood Motherhood

Controversy and taboo surrounding motherhood follow women in many fields and the STEM fields are no exception. When a woman chooses to have a both a family and a career, she is questioned about her commitment to her career; it might even be assumed that she will permanently depart. Decisions involving parenthood is highly personal yet still somehow follows women into the workplace. Some women report feeling as though they are viewed as engaging with their work as a hobby and not as a lifelong calling or profession due to their potential or current motherhood. Maternity concerns tend to branch out into other barriers for women as well including income inequality and feeling a sense of stereotype threat. The special report “Retaining Women in STEM Careers: Graduate Students as the Building Blocks of Change” states that women with children are 28% less likely than those without to be placed in tenure-track positions. 

3. Lack of Mentorship

Professional mentorships are vitally important in fields where the odds are “stacked against” rising individuals. Women jump multiple hurdles in STEM-related careers and having the advice of a woman who has already “been there, done that” can vastly improve the ability of women new to or rising up within their fields to stay the course and see that success is possible. Multiple reports state a lack of mentorship as an issue for women in STEM fields. Having a mentor can improve career opportunities and provide best practices for navigating career paths. Both formal and informal mentorships create advantageous partnerships for women; this can be difficult when there are so few women in these fields and in some cases, one woman might be the only one in her workplace or department. Mentors can actively address situations that might not be inherently easy for newcomers like workplace politics, negotiations (for salary or promotion), and overall life-balancing mechanisms.

4. Stereotype Threat and Implicit Bias

Women are often on the receiving end of stereotype threat and multiple subtle but implicit biases. Stereotype threat describes a situation in which a negative preconceived stereotype can affect performance or even the willingness to attempt an activity at all. The problem of too few women in STEM fields could self-perpetuate given this stereotype threat where women are hesitant to enter and those who have entered such fields are dealing with the negativities and biases that accompany their entry. Women in minority-groups are even doubly subjected to variations of bias on a broad spectrum of discriminatory behavior. Biases come in a variety of packaging and some are simply so subtle that even highly-educated, informed individuals can be subject to their presence. Harvard’s Implicit Association Tests can help people identify and decode implicit biases they have of which they might be unaware in order to establish informed dialogue.

5. Income Inequality

A study among Canadian engineers discovered that women engineers were earning 16% less on average than males performing equal positions. It’s also reported that the income gap widens between genders over time worked in the field. The report “Retaining Women in STEM Careers” details a report where STEM employers were asked to review identical resumes, one female and the other male, and repeatedly gave the female resume a lower starting salary. Income inequality is demotivating and degrading to women who already must wrestle with other inherent biases. Bridging the income inequality gap will amplify women’s progress in the struggle for equal treatment. STEM organizations should implement hiring standards that ensure an equal playing field in the application and interview processes.

Women have spoken: they are experiencing documentable gender bias. In the continuous effort to encourage more young women and girls into STEM fields, there is much work to be done. Throughout all education levels, intelligence should not be spoken of as a fixed attribute that cannot alter with aging and education. Viewing intelligence as absolute can discourage young girls when they encounter difficulties in their education. Perseverance and encouragement is vital for all young minds to grow in STEM education. 

Everyone should examine their own inherent biases to open dialogue about implicit bias. Women should be proactively recruited into STEM fields and be provided opportunities for STEM education where they can study in an equitable setting with other women. This could take place in “Women in STEM” clubs or organisationally-sponsored events. Institutions should review their government-backed discrimination and diversity policies to ensure thorough, genuine compliance. With concentrated effort, women will able to comfortably pursue fulfilling careers in the STEM fields without hesitation.

Written for DiversityInc Best Practices


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