Lifestyle, Science, Science and Technology

My Experience of Gender Stereotyping in STEM


Now prepare for my stream of consciousness as I try and sum up my thoughts on being a woman in a science subject…

I learnt a lot in “freshers week”, mostly about the alcohol tolerance of teenagers and what happens when we’re all let out of the parental home for the first time, but I also found out something about the weird stigmatism around women in science. Every conversation in freshers’ week follows the same format: “Hey, what’s your name, where are you from, what are you studying?” so I must have repeated this to every single person I met over the course of the last year and a half. When I replied “biochemistry”, I had a few different responses. There were a lot of “wow”s, spoken with wide eyes, and “ooh clever”s, but the one that sticks the most was when a guy responded “Nahh, you’re too pretty to be a biochemist!” I was speechless – not just because a stranger had called me pretty.Was that supposed to be a complement? But I am a biochemist, I thought… so by telling me that biochemists aren’t meant to be “pretty” he wasn’t being as complimentary to me as he seemed to think. Was there some rule I’d never heard of before, that a girl can’t be smart and pretty?

As a matter of fact, when it comes to women, according to an article in New Scientist magazine’s graduate careers special this year, there may well be a bias against “more attractive” women applying for jobs (though I should point out, this was not solely in scientific jobs, but I found it interesting nonetheless). In an experiment conducted using 5312 fictional CVs sent out to 2656 real employers, women were more likely to be called back when they had attached no photo to their CV, followed by those with an attached photo of a “plain” looking woman, with “more attractive” women more likely to be rejected. This contrasts with the same experiment performed with fictional male candidates – in this scenario, handsome men received 50% more callbacks than those without a photo, and twice the number received by plain-looking males.

For some reason, in some people’s minds, lies the belief that men are in fact smarter than women. During one of our many feminism debates at college a couple of years ago, I remember one of the girls piping up and saying “but that’s because men are just smarter than women”… Half of the people surrounding her were intelligent women, yet she had seriously claimed that none of us could ever be as smart as any of the men around us, because we’re just naturally less intelligent. Part of me feels like she can’t have actually meant it: maybe she was playing devil’s advocate, but it was the fact that she’d said it with no hesitation or doubt, that bothered me so much.

The Male-Female Ratio
My physics class at college was the most gender-balanced physics class in my year, yet there were six girls to what must have been at least twelve boys. Other physics classes only had one girl in. We were sixteen, yet already gender bias had cut the numbers of promising female physicists (and I should add chemists, though not as drastically) down to a handful. Maybe this was something to do with how surprised one of the boys was when I told him at the end of the year that we got the same grade. Instead of replying with a “well done!” he just looked at me, shocked, then, taken aback said, “oh really?” Yes. Really.

By the time I reached university, the gap had increased further. In 2009/2010, only 21% of full-time first year bachelor degree students studying physics were female, whereas approximately 55% of first years in all degrees were female.*

Plot showing trends in degrees conferred to women. Graph from Plotly.
Plot showing trends in degrees conferred to women. Graph from Plotly.

An excellent, interactive graph showing trends in the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred to women in various subjects can be found here. (The graph to the right is the same graph)

Now, we can claim that “women don’t like science” as much as we want to. Or that “women’s brains aren’t wired the same as men’s – they all like cooking and sewing and babies and animals and things” (although you probably shouldn’t harp on about that one or I might explode), but there is something not right here, when not only the numbers of women in these jobs are lower, but the pay being received by women in the same jobs as men is different. There are women in these jobs (not as many as we’d like), and in a lot of cases, they’re clearly not being valued as much as the men. Herein may lie the source of my misery. See an interactive plot of the gender wage gap in various jobs here.

Now I’m not one to say we need to force a 50/50 ratio of men to women in every job: we probably shouldn’t choose a woman for a job just because she’s a woman. That’s just another form of discrimination. We need to choose the right person for a job: if we choose a woman just to make a point and she does a bad job, that’s not exactly going to do wonders for society’s view on women. All we need to do is stop the bias. Sometimes a man is the best person for the job, but equally sometimes a woman is.

Young girls need to see that they too can be engineers – engineer does not mean a dirty-looking man who fixes cars, a stereotype which some children still believe. We need to cut out these stereotypes, so that I stop hearing young children say “but that’s a boy’s job” or “but you’re too pretty to be a biochemist”. I don’t want to kill all men, or force all women to be scientists and all men to be house-husbands. I just want to move into a job where I can be paid the same as my male counterparts, and for people not to make rash judgments about my intelligence based on my gender. I want little girls to aspire to be exactly what they want to be, not what society tells them to be, whether they one day do decide to be a stay-at-home-mum, or a nurse, or a member of the police force or an engineer, or ANYTHING; it’s their choice. Is that so much to ask?

This post was inspired by an article by Alice Zielinski.

*Degree data from the UK, from the Institute of Physics, Statistical Report.

Thanks for reading! Disclaimer: Of course I realise that these aren’t the biggest feminist issues in the world right now. But this is still something that needs to be addressed. The need for equality didn’t end when women won the right to vote.

Please comment with your thoughts and experiences on the topic. How do you think we can encourage more women to pursue and stay in, science subjects? Or do you think we can’t?

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