Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Tech & Science

Op-Ed: Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields

The ‘Google memo’ has sparked a great deal of interest during August. This was when James Damore, aged 28, raised Google’s diversity policies in a memo, essentially arguing that policies designed to increase the presentation of women in technology was a waste of time because women are not ‘naturally’ able to perform as well in science related subjects.

Dalmore’s assertion is that this relates to some kind of biological disadvantage which manifests itself psychologically. His claims were swiftly rebuked by Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Dalmore was dismissed and, in the aftermath, Pichai stated: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

A Google Appliance

A Google Appliance

Damore’s pseudoscience does not deserve a wider platform. However, it is a serious issue that the proportion of women in the so-termed STEM professions (and, at college level the associated subjects) is low. STEM is an acronym for ‘science, technology, engineering and mathematics’; what are sometimes erroneously considered to be ‘hard’ subjects in comparison to the subjects under the umbrella of the ‘humanities.’ Putting aside the complexity of the STEM elements, educating, training and investing in the STEM fields is important for scientific and technological advance to be made.

Real-time, pressing examples include the discovery of new medicines (“Pharmaceutical sector is waking up to big data“) and the digital transformation of businesses (“Why small businesses need to consider digital transformation“).

With STEM subjects, in the U.S. women make-up only 37 percent of students studying for degrees in these subjects. This average hides the 40 percent who take degrees in mathematics and the lowly 18 percent who take computer science.

A microbiologist undertakes molecular testing into an unknown bacterium. Photograph taken in Tim San...

A microbiologist undertakes molecular testing into an unknown bacterium. Photograph taken in Tim Sandle’s laboratory.

So why are women underrepresented in STEM fields? To dismiss the biological argument swiftly, the majority of neuroscience studies have found no structural or neurological differences between the brains of males and females. Studies showing this include a major inquiry from The Rockefeller University, New York published in the journal PNAS in 2015 (“Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic”) and a similar one from the University of Edinburgh (“Sex differences in the adult human brain: Evidence from 5,216 UK Biobank participants.”)

The reasons for underrepresentation relate, according to Meg John Barker, a psychologist at the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K. (in an interview with New Scientist magazine), to cultural factors and social stereotyping. Many of these are built into institutions (such as schools) and within some employment practices.

Based on this, one strand of research concluded that the “masculine culture” that pervades many STEM workplaces makes many women feel like they do not belong. Here Sapna Cheryan, a UW associate professor of psychology, told last year: “There is widespread knowledge that women are underrepresented in STEM, but people tend to lump STEM fields together. This is one of the first attempts to really dig down into why women are more underrepresented in some STEM fields than others.”

File Photo: Dr. Scott Walper  a molecular biologist in the Naval Research Laboratory s (NRL) center ...

File Photo: Dr. Scott Walper, a molecular biologist in the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering advises Ebony Stadler, a biomedical engineering rising senior from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, as she performs an experiment in the lab.
Office of Naval Research (CC BY 2.0)

Writing in the Psychological Bulletin, Cheryan later identifies three cultural factors that need to be addressed in order to encourage greater participation by women in SEM fields. First, the stereotypes of the fields that are incompatible with how many women perceive themselves; second, there are too many negative stereotypes about women’s abilities; and thirdly there is a dearth of suitable role models for women.

Taking role models, Professor Julia King, who is in charge of Aston University in the U.K., has written in relation to the women-in-STEM discussions: “Role models are really important, even though the messages may be subliminal. I’m not just talking about seeing female experts on TV – although they are certainly a positive influence – I’m also talking about the influence of parents, family members, teachers and peers.”

As well as the issue of representation in STEM fields, women also tend to be disadvantaged once roles are secured. According to research undertaken by Dr. Hildegard Nimmesgern for the journal Chemistry, there is a tendency for women to leave research earlier than similarly qualified men. Moreover, women in science and technology are paid less than men (despite repeated reviews into the gender pay gap); they are promoted less, and win fewer grants. The securing of grants is an important part of the scientific life since this determines whether a piece of research will ever see the light of day.

These various reviews challenge the misanthropic musings of a tech employee. The matter has, however, brought an important issue to the center. Entry into important areas like science and technology should be based on individual merit. In order to bring in top talent stereotypes and gender bias need to be bulldozed. Furthermore, the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities needs to become less male-orientated and schools, for pupils at a relatively young age, need to encourage and inspire women to engage with science and technology subjects.

Avatar photo
Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

You may also like:


Universal Pictures was crowned Hollywood's top studio last year, dethroning Disney at the box office for the first time in nearly a decade.


On trial, O.J. Simpson's spectacular sports career came crashing down when he was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend - Copyright AFP/File...


'Defence industries will play a growing role,' said French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) - Copyright AFP OLIVIER DOULIERYFrance’s President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday called...


Haitian police patrol the streets of Port-Au-Prince on April 8, 2024 - Copyright AFP Clarens SIFFROYJean-Daniel SENAT and Jean LUCKENSONJameson Jacques has been living...