Why Aren't There More Women in STEM?

November 23rd 2014

One scientist - or to be more accurate, one scientist's shirt - made headlines this week. During a broadcast covering the historic landing of a spacecraft on a comet, scientist Matt Taylor's shirt depicting scantily clad women became a symbol of rampant sexism in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

With the hashtag "#shirtstorm," social media users have been quick to point fingers at who is to blame for sexism in science.

It's a complicated debate that comes down to a simple question about the roots of that sexism: Is science sexist because there are no women in the field or are there no women in the field because science is sexist?

In fact, both answers are true and inextricably linked. It's true that there are not many women in the STEM fields. As two Cornell professors noted recently in The New York Times, many women choose not to go into the STEM fields due to different educational choices and lifestyle preferences. Society plays a role in those preferences as girls are not exposed to science in the same ways as boys. For example, math and science-related toys are not marketed to girls like they are to boys. GoldieBlox - a line of engineering toys for girls - made a splash two years ago for exactly that reason: that it was a novelty, rather than a whole sector of the toy industry.

Just take a look at the Barbie book "I Can Be A Computer Engineer," published in 2010: it came under fire recently for having the Barbie character consistently turn to her male companions for help. As one of Barbie's male friends says, "It will go faster if Brian and I help."

However, it's not as simple as saying, "Well, we gave boys books, and we gave girls Barbie. That's the reason." After all, that answer becomes victim-blaming as it attributes the sexism to women opting out of science.

Every workplace has a culture, and STEM fields are no different. Their culture was - unfairly - built solely around men. Men in science lack female colleagues, and as a result, are less informed about how to treat women. The people who support Matt Taylor point out that he is "no misogynist," and, in fact, Taylor seems to fit right into our general perception of the "nerdy scientist" perpetuated by pop culture. I'm reminded of the 80s film Weird Science, where unpopular high schoolers created their own ideal woman, who happens to be a submissive sex symbol. To say there were sexist overtures in that movie is an understatement, but that's not the point. The point, rather, is that this stereotype of an endearing scientist who knows nothing about women -- aside for what they see in pornography or video games -- is a cultural fixture for a reason. This is a common experience for men in STEM fields.

While the Cornell professors note that women are promoted and recognized in the science fields just as much as men, they also don't mention the sexual harassment that these women often face as a result of this male-only culture. As Kelly J. Baker pointed out, a survey showed that 71% of female scientists report being sexually harassed and assaulted, compared to 41% of men. A lack of knowledge about women does not justify such extreme statistics.

It's time to change how we view and promote the relationship between women and the STEM fields. We should stop pointing figures and instead look toward shifting our culture as a whole - from how we introduce math-intensive fields to children to how we cultivate the STEM field culture for adults. Yes, the uproar over Matt Taylor's shirt is justified - but only because it brings the issue of sexism in the science to the forefront. Matt Taylor is not responsible for these deep problems, but it is our responsibility to come together to find solutions. Check out great organizations such as Girls Who Code as a starting point.