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Gender Disparity in STEM

By Kaushal Baid

posted: April 20th, 2019

Gender bias is not a new concept. Historically, men were considered breadwinners and women, homemakers. This was due to the belief that women were incapable of doing what were labeled ‘manly’ jobs or intellectual work. These jobs were the reserve of men and not for ‘delicate’ and ‘emotional’ women. It took many strong and courageous women to break into the fields once closed to them to prove that they could do these jobs just as well as men, if not better.

 

Over the years, society has started to become more equal. Women are earning more college and graduate degrees than men, and by some estimates represent the largest single economic force in the world [1]. Gender stereotypes are changing, and women have proven themselves in the workforce. For instance, the share of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 6.4% in 2017, with 32 women heading major firms [2]. Surely, we have come a long way in reducing gender bias in our workplace and educational institutions, but there remains a significant gender gap in the field of science. Sometimes, even to a greater degree than in other professions [1].

 

The number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, after an initial rise between 1970-90, has more recently plateaued [1]. Worse, women are increasingly underrepresented in academic settings, especially in senior leadership roles. Therefore, women are more likely to search for jobs outside of STEM fields that are not as prejudicial [3]. A recent survey of UK scientists suggests that women are facing more obstacles in starting up their research groups than their male peers. They lack the support they need to push their careers to the next stage, which makes them less optimistic about their futures [4].  

 

Science benefits greatly from increased gender diversity. For example, for many years, male animals (rat, mouse etc.) were preferentially used in scientific experiments, due to concerns that hormonal changes in female animals would increase variability in the results. Similarly, in many clinical trials, drugs were tested in average-size males. Such procedural bias to not consider sex as a variable in scientific research had resulted in women suffering disproportionately from various medications and/ or treatments due to poor understanding of how those drugs affected the female physiology [1]. However, having the point of view of a woman scientist could significantly reduce this procedural bias in various health-related research and make test results more relevant to both genders equally. Therefore, we, as part of STEM community must acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential without openness to the talents of all. We must become aware of our own potential biases, and work to address them in all areas of our work as scientists. A combination of data-driven approach and qualitative research to understand the barriers that prevents us from reaching gender equity goals, will provide arguments to modify guidelines and policies that dictate hiring, funding, retention, promotion and more, for women in STEM [5].

 

Sources:

 

  1. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141107-gender-studies-women-scientific-research-feminist/

  2. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/fact-sheet/the-data-on-women-leaders/

  3. Ovseiko et al. Health Research Policy and Systems (2017) 15:12

  4. Acton, S. E., Bell, A., Toseland, C. P. & Twelvetrees, A. Preprint at BioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/571935 (2019)

  5. Grogan, K.E., How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2019. 3(1): p. 3-6.