6 Reasons Why STEM Outreach Is a Feminist Issue

Source: Levo

Source: Levo

I can’t believe I still have to say this, but increasing the number of women in STEM fields is crucial to gender equality in all workplaces.

We shouldn’t have “male-dominated” and “female-dominated” fields that separate us into gender-specific jobs that don’t correspond with our actual aspirations.

And while we love to share statistics when discussing the low number of women in STEM fields (27%), the problem is much bigger than the low percentage of women in the industry.

STEM fields are perceived as male, no matter what statistics say!

Even fields in which women earn more than half of degrees awarded, such as chemistry and math, are considered “male-dominated.”

That’s incredible: Even when we are the majority, we are somehow in a field that does not belong to us.

And women who happen to succeed and are competent in their fields pay the price for their success by being disliked and painted as “unladylike” – whatever that means – and shrill.

But the reality is that women are not trying to enter STEM fields because we simply desire more women in the industry. Our presence is actually required for success!

It’s quite simple: People who will use a product must have a place in the design process.

In that way, and others, it’s crucial to increase the number of women in STEM fields because we are a valuable asset to the industry.

And, as this article observes, when women enter STEM fields, we bring a fresh perspective and a distinct direction that promotes the creation of even more careers within the STEM industry.

So what are some reasons why STEM needs women and women need STEM? Well…

1. To Maximize Creativity and Innovation

STEM careers are all about using our imaginations and proven scientific and mathematical theories to solve everyday problems.

Without a dedication to our craft, a love for discovery, and a lot of childlike imagination, we can’t find solutions to problems.

When scientists and engineers are all the same demographic (read: men), we miss out on a lot of diverse creativity that could make products and services more useful to everyone.

The benefits of a diverse workplace have been exalted in many studies.

And by diversity, I mean all types — cultural, gendered, educational, cognitive, and preferential.

The one thing that all studies agree on is that one type of diversity alone does not automatically increase innovation, but a combination does. And this should come as no surprise.

Greater diversity brings a range of knowledge, ideas, and opinions.

And the reason why creativity increases is because people in a group have to discuss and negotiate the definition of the problem first, and then find solutions.

In a diverse group, everyone will have a different understanding of a problem and its solution, which enables teamwork, increases innovation, and results in a solution that favors as many as possible.

A great example is this panel that a colleague of mine helped plan last month. He is a queer activist and city planner, and because of his unique perspective on city planning, he can bring about positive change for people who don’t have a seat at the table when these projects are implemented.

2. Better Chance of Getting it Right the First Time

Think about it.

If women have a vital part in the creative design process, we’ll make sure to explain our unique needs and ensure that they are being met.

We live in a society where even products that are almost exclusively used by women are designed by men. And this is not so surprising as the number of female engineers, designers, and scientists is quite low.

Female scientists and engineers make up 41 percent of entry- and mid-level professionals (an astounding figure that mostly includes the social sciences, like biology), but more than half of them (52 percent, to be exact) quit their jobs by mid-career, as shown in this study.

But it’s inefficient and narrow-minded to forget to include individuals who will be using a product! 

Perhaps in the long run, prolonged testing will discover and address holes in logic that were missed during the design, but it could be too late.

Not to mention the long timeline of design, implementation, testing, and re-testing that will be needed if crucial people are not involved early on.

The more diverse the people working on a project, the more chances are your goal will cover all possible scenarios on the first run.

3. Women’s Needs Taken into Consideration

When women are not involved in the design of these products, needs and desires unique to women may be overlooked.

Two very popular, but crucial examples are found in the book Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis.

In her book, she explains that early voice-recognition systems were calibrated for male voices, so that when women tried to use these products, they didn’t work properly.

Women were literally not heard.

Similarly, the first automobile airbags were designed by a group of male scientists, who neglected to tailor their design for the bodies of women and children, which are often smaller.

This resulted in a number of avoidable deaths to individuals who were simply never taken into consideration.

Just like female fashion designers understand that women’s bodies require different tailoring than men’s, so must engineers and scientists.

If our products are only being created with part of the population in mind, then not only are we missing out on an entire demographic, but we’re also creating products that might not be useful or safe for certain people.

4. More Women in High-Paying Careers

I won’t pretend that there is no gender pay gap in STEM fields.

Women still earn less than men do. It’s a problem in the overall workforce that feminist activists are fighting hard to narrow.

Yet, women in STEM earn 33% more than women in other sectors of the workforce, and that’s significant.

I didn’t study engineering because I wanted to make a ton of money (and I don’t!), but I wanted job and pay security, and for the most part, STEM fields can provide that.

Starting salaries are much higher for STEM fields. A mechanical engineer with a Bachelor’s degree earns more than $59,000 in an entry-level position, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, as shown in this report.

And while I think that all workplaces should provide a livable wage, I understand the importance of pushing more women into fields that pay well and were traditionally considered male spaces.

5. Perpetuating Stereotypes

One major reason for the lack of women in STEM fields is that STEM continues to perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes.

Statistics show that girls are often behind in the mathematics and science courses, and many use this information to “prove” that girls are just not good at math!

The reality is that we don’t raise our girls the way we raise boys, and this leads girls to subconsciously believe that STEM fields are for boys. They even doubt their own abilities to be successful, and as adults this becomes their realization.

Children’s toys are heavily gendered, with girls’ toys mimicking domestic duties such as cleaning, washing, and child rearing – or completely imagined careers like princesses.

Meanwhile, toys for boys often represent future careers and appeal to children’s imaginations and creativity: telescopes, building blocks, science kits, cars and trains, police and firefighter costumes, and so on.

We are sending signals to children that their future careers depend not on their abilities, skills, and likes, but on their gender.

And this continues on through adolescence and into adulthood.

Yet most studies show that there really is no difference between math and science abilities in children. The real culprit is performance bias.

If a girl believes she is not supposed to be good at math, she will likewise not perform as well as she could. Yet, as I demonstrated in this article, the way we speak to our children and the encouragement that they receive is important for their future success.

Likewise, when educators and parents tell girls and boys that they are equally capable in math and science, they perform equally.

Because we are equal!

6. We Need Role Models

When I explain how crucial it is to see people like us in all professions, I often get a lot of pushback from men.

They tell me that role models are people we can relate to, and that is not always based on sexuality, gender, or likeness, which is all true.

I have had many male role models of all ethnicities and backgrounds throughout the years, and they have all inspired me profoundly, but I don’t see myself in them!

When I see a woman in a position I’d like to be in, I internalize that, and my goal becomes that much more tangible. What I see is an individual who also faces the unique challenges that I face, and she has succeeded.

As psychologist Albert Bandura states in regards to self-efficacy theory, Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities required to succeed.”

I know that most of the male role models in my life will not have to wonder if their marriage will affect their salary or if they can cope with having children, raising them, and managing all the household duties that often fall on the shoulders of women.

So when I say that we need role models, I mean that.

It is crucial to help each other navigate a workplace that was not meant for us.


So what can you do to change this?

1. Take the implicit bias test to find out how we promote gender stereotypes and what we can do to avoid that.

2. Make an effort to compliment girls on their intelligence and creativity, and when you’re buying a young girl a gift, make sure that it’s educational and uplifting.

3. Encourage everyone in your life to pursue what they want to do, and truly help them feel like they will succeed. So much of what we can do stems from how we feel about ourselves.

4. Keep on fighting for gender equality in STEM – and everywhere!

As Myra Sadker, an educator who wrote extensively on sexual bias in schools said, “If the cure for cancer was in the mind of a girl, we might never discover it.”

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Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.