The STEM of Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes have often insisted that women don’t belong in STEM fields. Starting in grade school, many girls are told that because of their gender, they lack the natural talent or ability to be successful in such careers. These incorrect assumptions and myriad others undermine the contributions that women have made in the past, and that they have the potential to make in the future. The very understanding that we have of the double-helical structure of DNA, the foundation of GPS technology, and CRISPR–a mechanism for editing genomes, are all developments that were dependent upon the involvement of women in STEM fields.[1]

Gender stereotypes deterring women from pursuing STEM careers are not disadvantages exclusive to women of the 21st century. Women have always faced pressure to conform to “gender norms.” We don’t have to look any further than the Salem Witch Trials to see that women have historically been put in uncomfortable situations, or outright punished for going against the status quo.[2]

One of the most prevalent obstacles that women in STEM face is the “stereotype threat.” This phenomenon occurs in someone aware of negative stereotypes concerning groups with which they identify (in this case, women). Those stereotypes cause a worry that an individual’s poor performance will lead to confirmation of the stereotype in question which can result in impeded performance.[3] In the case of women in STEM, a woman may begin to feel that the reputation of all women in her field relies upon her performance–a pretty heavy burden to shoulder.

A study conducted by Gregory M. Walton, and Steven J. Spencer in 2009 confirmed the stereotype threat. They hypothesized that stereotype threat undermines the intellectual abilities of stereotyped students. If the psychological threat was removed, then stereotyped students would perform better than students that previously were performing at the same academic level. The groups they chose to study were minorities and women. After controlling for certain variables, they confirmed that students who are negatively stereotyped face impediments to their performance. Nearly all stereotyped students outperformed students that had initially performed at their same academic level when the threat was removed.

Imagine the implications of such a phenomenon. Making a woman feel that she doesn’t belong in a specific field can become an obstacle that significantly impacts her success. Highly capable and intelligent students interested in STEM, who have the potential to contribute to findings that would improve the world, are made to believe that because of who they are, they shouldn’t be able to succeed in their field of interest. Consequently, they may choose to enter alternative fields simply because they feel they don’t belong.

This creates further issues for women because a lack of females in STEM fields seems to have a positive feedback loop—fewer women being in STEM careers produces work circumstances that aren’t accommodating or flexible which causes fewer women who require flexibility to choose to pursue those same careers.

As a woman studying neuroscience, I am no stranger to the difficulties faced by women in STEM. I’ve been told I don’t look like I belong in my major and experienced my fair share of “mansplaining”. I can testify firsthand that your confidence takes a hit when you’re made to feel that you need to prove that you deserve your place in your STEM courses.

In my freshman chemistry course, our section of 15 students met with the teacher’s assistant twice a week for him to grade our homework assignments. I remember one specific day early on in the semester, I was patiently waiting for the teacher’s assistant to check my work. One of the men in my class walked up to me and began reading my answers over my shoulder. He quickly pointed out that one of my answers was wrong. At first, I was confused as to why he had taken it upon himself to correct my work when I hadn’t asked for his help. I thanked him for his input but told him I was confident in my answer. He persisted, but I made it clear that I wasn’t going to change what I had written. Apparently offended, he turned around and scoffed, “Gosh Princess, it’s not that hard to understand.”

I was in complete shock. What was I supposed to say to that? The whole class had heard, and in my first semester of college, that felt mortifying. Did I need to gracefully accept his unsolicited corrections and insults? Did I need to defend myself? I felt isolated and embarrassed. If you’ll believe it, that didn’t feel like a perfect start to my college experience.

I was terrified to come back to class two days later. Would he make any other comments like that? Had he opened the door for other students to do the same? I wondered what the rest of the class thought of me. Maybe they would think that I was a smart-alec trying to prove herself, or that I didn’t understand chemistry and should save myself the trouble and switch majors right then. If I weren’t so stubborn and didn’t love science as much as I do, feeling as alienated as I did may have been enough to make me switch gears and pursue something other than my passion.

To my dismay, that wasn’t the last time I’d feel out of place in my classes. While I haven’t been openly humiliated since my freshman chemistry course, I certainly have been cut off, interrupted, and treated as though I were invisible. At times I have wondered if I’m speaking the right language, or if anyone can hear my voice at all. I’m not alone in that experience. Nearly every woman in STEM (and probably most fields) could recount many experiences akin to these ones.

I don’t want to paint the picture that all men have been unkind or ignorant in my STEM courses (and it’s not always men). I’ve made scores of great friends in my classes, male and female, that have been supportive, and haven’t given stock to the narrative that women can’t be good at math or science. Those people have made all the difference. There isn’t a clear-cut, one-size-fits-all resolution to the stereotypes, discrimination, and STEM gender gap, but recognizing how harmful the stereotypes are can encourage people to pursue their passions. Many women wonder if they’ll fail if their voice will be heard, if they’ll belong, or if they can make the lifestyle work. They need mentors and to feel empowered. They need to be listened to and shown that it is possible to achieve what seems far out of reach. I don’t know how to fix the problem, but I know that it’s the small things that will make the difference. As we unite to eliminate STEM gender stereotypes, it will pave the pathway for aspiring women to contribute to further monumental developments.

-J.L.R.


[1] Schmidt, Megan. “Meet 10 Women in Science Who Changed the World.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 4 May 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/meet-10-women-in-science-who-changed-the-world.

[2] Marshall, Bridget. “Most Witches Are Women, Because Witch Hunts Were All about Persecuting the Powerless.” The Conversation, 26 Feb. 2021, https://theconversation.com/most-witches-are-women-because-witch-hunts-were-all-about-persecuting-the-powerless-125427.

[3] Spencer, Steven J, and Gregory M Walton. “Latent Ability: Grades and Test Scores Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students – Gregory M. Walton, Steven J. Spencer, 2009.” SAGE Journals, 1 Sept. 2009, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02417.x?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%2B%2B0pubmed&.

Additional References

Ananthram, Subramaniam, et al. “It’s Not Lack of Confidence That’s Holding Back Women in Stem.” The Conversation, 24 Aug. 2021, https://theconversation.com/its-not-lack-of-confidence-thats-holding-back-women-in-stem-155216.

Marshall, Bridget. “Most Witches Are Women, Because Witch Hunts Were All about Persecuting the Powerless.” The Conversation, 26 Feb. 2021, https://theconversation.com/most-witches-are-women-because-witch-hunts-were-all-about-persecuting-the-powerless-125427.

Schmidt, Megan. “Meet 10 Women in Science Who Changed the World.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 4 May 2020, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/meet-10-women-in-science-who-changed-the-world.

Spencer, Steven J, and Gregory M Walton. “Latent Ability: Grades and Test Scores Systematically Underestimate the Intellectual Ability of Negatively Stereotyped Students – Gregory M. Walton, Steven J. Spencer, 2009.” SAGE Journals, 1 Sept. 2009, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02417.x?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%2B%2B0pubmed&.

Thorpe, JR. “19 Female Scientists Whose Inventions Are Helping Us Live Longer than Ever.” Bustle, Bustle, 28 Apr. 2018, https://www.bustle.com/p/19-female-scientists-whose-inventions-are-helping-us-live-longer-than-ever-8823334.

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