The overt sexism that was once present in academia has largely disappeared. Women are finally accorded the same opportunities as men for success, or so it seems. The reality, however, is that subtle vestiges of sexism remain, limiting the ability of female students to reach their maximum potential. Remnants of sexism seem most visible in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects, where women remain dramatically underrepresented.
Despite its persistence, the presumption that women lack the intellectual capabilities to excel in science and math has often been proven wrong. However, unconscious bias is a remnant of this long-standing stereotype. A 2012 study conducted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is an excellent illustration of this. Faculty participants were each told to rate applicants—which had been randomly assigned male or female names—for a laboratory manager position. The faculty consistently rated the applications with male names higher than those supposedly belonging to women, despite their identical content. Participants believed the applications attributed to men were significantly more competent than those belonging to women.
Even more surprisingly, female faculty members were just as biased towards the male applications as their male colleagues. Similar studies regarding gender biases in science fields have been conducted with comparable results. Whether or not the perpetrators of gender bias are conscious of their discrimination, these studies clearly illustrate the degree to which gender stereotypes remain entrenched in society.
Female STEM students themselves often have subconscious biases regarding their own capabilities. Although they may be fully capable of attaining the same levels of success as their male classmates, females have been known to have lower confidence in their abilities. Several factors could be contributing to the lack of confidence among women in STEM; one main reason may be a deficit of encouragement. Since these fields have traditionally been male-dominated and conventionally unwelcoming towards women, female students are less likely to have encountered the same degree of positive reinforcement as men when entering these professions.
A second factor contributing to the issues women face is that they often have been socialized away from these fields since birth. Society conditions women—and men—to act and think in certain ways. The preference of women to enter into arts-related fields rather than science or engineering can be seen as a direct result of societal norms, which stereotype all women as being more empathetic and better at communicating than men. Why are we surprised when young boys who have been socialized into playing with construction sets and assembling train sets, are more likely to want to be engineers, for example, than their sisters, who were given dolls?
For thousands of years, humans have been socialized to believe that women are inferior to men. While we have come a long way, gender biases linger within society. In order to close the gender gap in STEM fields at universities, and, more generally, to ensure gender equality in all educational and professional spheres, we must try to limit the effects of the latent preferences that are still present. In addition to acknowledging our prejudices and rectifying our tendencies, efforts also need to be made to encourage women to enter these fields. As more and more focus is placed on progressing technologically, we must take advantage of all society’s bright minds. Continuing to focus on the contributions of only half of the population by limiting the opportunities for women to reach their full potential constitutes a large and unfortunate loss to science and technological progress.