Women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields have it hard enough in terms of pay and working conditions. A study by the American Institute of Physics looked at 15,000 physicists in 130 countries and concluded that female scientists generally received smaller salaries and less lab space and grants for travelling than their male counterparts.
Another study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that women in the mathematics and computer fields earn 87 percent of what men in those professions earn. As for engineering and architecture, women earn 82 percent of what men earn. Aside from the monetary inequalities, however, women in STEM also have to face the prejudiced doubts their colleagues have over their capabilities.
As a member of a computer aided design class and the Army Ants robotics club, junior Cami Kudrna has dealt with her peers’ lack of confidence in her abilities to assemble various devices. In some instances, team members have taken tools away from her, claiming they could complete the task better than her even though she was fully capable of handling it on her own. Other times, the verbal harassment escalated to an intolerable level.
“At robotics one day, we didn’t have much going on, so a group of kids went to the computer lab. My friend had directed them to come up with chants,” Kudrna said. “About 10 minutes after we had split off, she texted me that some of the guys had come up with the chant, ‘We make women drop their pants because we are the Army Ants.’ At that point we were both extremely upset, and that’s when we confronted the mentors. Since then they have apologized, but at the time we both felt very unsafe.”
Kudrna deals with such issues by talking about it with the other girls in the club and expressing concerns to their mentors, such as Taylor Latham, a mechanical engineering major at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU). Although Latham also believes in confiding in female role models to get through sexist situations, she has come to the realization that if she wants to be taken seriously in a STEM task, she has to prove that she knows what she’s doing.
“In most situations I’ve faced, it’s either been a matter of being grossly underestimated by my male counterparts or simply being talked over; however, once I built up the confidence to have my voice heard, I found my ideas leading the discussion,” Latham said. “…It also helps to have strong female role models in your life that you can talk to. Most likely they’ve actually experienced a similar situation and can help talk you through how to get through it.”
Stephanie Harman, who teaches honors chemistry and honors physics, said she has experienced instances in which parents of her students were not confident in her ability to understand and teach science. These issues usually arise at the beginning of the school year, so she chooses not to acknowledge them. Over time, the parents learn that their doubts in her abilities because she is female are incorrect.
To overcome these sexist biases, Harman believes individuals need to reflect on their opinions and try to figure out where their beliefs come from.
“I believe that any hindrances that exist to a person being able to excel in their chosen field should be removed. I think it really takes believing in your own abilities and advocating for yourself to overcome those ideas that women are somehow less capable in the STEM fields,” Harman said. “I think learning about and knowing the women who have ‘made it’ and surrounding yourself with like-minded, supportive people are keys to succeeding in any field.”
Kudrna agrees that girls should not be afraid to be themselves and keeping pursuing their goals, even if they experience problems and misconceptions from others. Despite this belief, she also believes the solution to the problem lies beyond an individual level.
“People need to talk about the problems that happen and not just brush them under the rug. The media needs to address these issues more. Empowering articles are great, but revealing the problems that are present can be more beneficial,” Kudrna said. “You can draw girls into STEM with empowerment, but if they don’t know the problems, you won’t be able to make them stay.”