The Harbinger Online

Women in STEM

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I pause outside room 509, buzzing with excitement. I am about to enter Java Computer Programming, a class I have been looking forward to all summer. But, upon opening the door, my heart sinks. I’m disappointed, though hardly surprised, to see that only one of the students in the class is a girl.

From the moment I walked in, all pink jelly shoes and winged eyeliner, my classmates were immediately making judgements. Simply because of my gender, whether they’ll admit it or not, every guy in that room was already doubting my ability to fit in. And, quite frankly, that terrifies me.Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 9.04.57 AM 2

If any of the boys in Java don’t understand a concept straight away, nobody cares. But if I don’t do well, I’ll be confirming all of their assumptions. “Did she really think she’d be any good at this? I could tell from the moment I met her she’d be terrible with computers.”  Suddenly doing well in this class has become about more than just my GPA. It’s about proving that I, as a girl, am good enough to be here.

And this is a problem that millions of women and girls are facing all over the world. They are consistently being told that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), is not where they belong.

A major part of the problem is that, from a young age, math and science are labelled as “male.” Practically from birth it’s building blocks and toy trains and chemistry kits for the boys, dresses and dolls and miniature kitchens for the girls. Society’s not exactly subtle about the roles it wants us to fulfill. And this continues throughout childhood, until it’s deeply ingrained in all of our minds.

A study at Washington and Lee university gave young girls Barbie dolls dressed in “non-traditional” outfits such as firefighter or astronaut. Almost immediately these girls were more likely to say that a woman could do that job. Putting girls into tight gendered boxes from such a young age can have a huge impact on their future worldview.

Aside from the inherent gender biases, women in STEM frequently face direct, aggressive sexism. A friend of mine once told me that boys at a math competition repeatedly tried to look down her shirt and pull up her skirt, not stopped by any of the adults at the event — all male, of course. Only three weeks ago, a close friend told me she was reconsidering majoring in Physics because she had been the only girl at the open day and had been patronized and sneered at, by staff and students alike, the entire day. A recent study showed that over three-quarters of female scientists had experienced sexual harassment working in their field. When women in STEM are constantly faced with this demeaning attitude, is it any wonder their numbers are so low?

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Statistics from nsf.gov

And women who make it past that, who do go on to pursue careers in STEM, still face blatant discrimination. A 2012 study at Yale showed that professors at major research institutes were far more likely to hire the man when presented with two identical resumes. And even those who did hire the women, offered her a salary on average $4,000 lower than the man. Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, in Computer and Mathematical occupations, women make up only one-third of the workforce, and only earn 80 percent as much.

What’s more, the women who are making advances in STEM simply aren’t being acknowledged. Increasingly I have seen a refusal for media to notice the awe-inspiring achievements of teenage girls in STEM. Anyone hear about Brittany Wenger – the girl in California who, when she was only 17, designed a computer program that can analyze tissue for breast cancer?  Or Ann Makosinski – the 16-year-old Canadian that invented a flashlight powered by body heat? Or even the Turkish 16-year-old, Elif Bilgin, who worked out how to create a bio-plastic that could replace petroleum-plastic, from banana peels. Young women won’t be inspired to pursue STEM when potential role models are continually undermined and ignored.

But I’m far from alone in my desperation to get more women into STEM. The company GoldieBlox creates engineering toys specifically geared towards young girls and the organization Let Toys Be Toys is campaigning to end gender categorization of children’s toys. More and more STEM institutes are introducing mandatory sexual harassment workshops. The charity Girls Who Code works to teach computer programming to teenage girls, and a similar organization, Black Girls Code, specifically addresses the lack of non-white young girls interested in STEM. There’s ever been a Computer Engineer Barbie doll, part of their ‘I Can Be’ career doll range.

So while these organizations try to open up the world of STEM for young women, thousands of women around the world will try to prove that they have a place in this “male field” and many teenage girls will try to fight against stereotypes to have their potential acknowledged. And I’ll try, I’ll try really hard, to get an A in Java.

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Katharine Swindells

Senior Katharine Swindells is head online copy-editor of the Harbinger Online. She likes British politics, selfies, feminism, cute shoes and books. Read Full »

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