STEM gender inequity is rooted in confidence gap

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With women in positions like the president of the Federal Reserve and chief technology officer of the United States, one could claim that American society has accepted female leaders in math and science. Unfortunately, recent research proves otherwise. According to a 2014 report from the National Student Clearinghouse, the share of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in these fields has actually gone down since 2004.

The increasing emergence of women in top positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields indicates that blatant acts of discrimination in these fields may be turning into a thing of the past. But the impact of continually reinforced gender-based stereotypes on society and individual psyches does not go away so easily. The persistent under-representation of women in STEM fields only contributes to the belief that they can never succeed to the extent that men do.

Internalization of gendered attitudes towards math and science has led to a confidence gap that prevails at many schools, including Occidental. Although six of the eight regular faculty members in the mathematics department are men, mathematics major Mary Kemp (senior) does not believe that she lacks in support. She has, however, noted a difference in attitudes between male and female students in her applied math courses.

“When men look at a problem they’re like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” Kemp said. “But women look at a math problem and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’”

After conducting summer research with a research team comprised entirely of women, Kemp realized the importance of having female role models.

“If you get to college and there’s someone who believes in you and says you should go for this thing, then you’re more likely to believe in yourself,” Kemp said. “I never thought I would get a PhD until someone was like, ‘Maybe you should get your PhD and teach.’ Having that thought just planted the seed.”

Historically, studies attributed the gap to an inherent biological advantage men had over women in math and science, but the past decade has proved this is not the case.

One of the most popular conclusions used to state that barriers progress in STEM began during their K-12 education, due to lack of encouragement from teachers. Nowadays, women enter college just as prepared to take on the academic workload as their male counterparts. In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that female students earn high school math and science credits at the same rate as male students. Somewhere within the transition from high school to college, women start to turn away—or feel turned away—from a career path in STEM.

A recent study by Harvard economics Professor Claudia Goldin might offer an explanation. Going through the academic records of economics students at an anonymous research institute, she discovered that women who received A’s in introductory courses often ended up more likely than men to declare an economics major. Women who received an A-minus or lower were less likely to do so than men with the same marks.

Also, one cannot forget the ways in which gender intersects with other social identities like race in issues of inequality. The numbers for Black and Hispanic scientists are even lower than that of women. Diverse representation in successful math, economics and science careers can instill a confidence in students that they have yet to fully realize.

The many efforts over the years to attract more women to these fields have not gone unnoticed. Occidental biology Professor Cheryl Okumura, for one, acknowledges the predecessors that inspired her to pursue her own career in academia.

“A lot of my female mentors, people who are, say, at least 15 to 20 years ahead of me career-wise, have gone through more of those struggles,” Okumura said. “They paved the way and it’s easier, nowadays. I wouldn’t say sexism in biology is totally absent but it’s less pervasive.”

For a success story, Occidental does not have to look much farther than a neighboring liberal arts institution. Since 2006, Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, has spearheaded efforts to encourage women to pursue engineering degrees. The changes included a revamping of introductory computer science courses, sponsoring female undergraduates at an annual women’s conference and establishing more women as department chairs. These interventions have paid off, with women comprising half of Harvey Mudd’s engineering majors as of 2014.

It seems that Klawe has taken some sound advice from Yale physics Professor Eileen Pollack, one of the first two women to receive a bachelor’s degree in science from the Ivy League university. In a 2013 article for The New York Times, Pollack argues that encouragement is a powerful determinant of whether or not a woman chooses to pursue a career in science.

There is no doubt that there are already brilliant students and faculty members paving a way for women in math, economics and science. But with women making up more than half of Occidental’s student body, one cannot ignore the potential number of students holding themselves back due to an internalized underestimation of their abilities. Granted, Occidental probably would not be able to match the statistics at Harvey Mudd considering our lack of an explicit academic focus on science, engineering and mathematics. If anything, the innovations at Harvey Mudd prove the substantial impact that representation in STEM academia can make on student attitudes.

By hiring more female tenure-track professors or hosting events geared towards highlighting women in math, science and engineering careers, Oxy can participate in a nationwide movement to change gendered attitudes towards these disciplines. The Career Development Center hosted a Google chat on Women in Business recently, and a similar event ought to be hosted by visiting women mathematicians or analysts.

Even if the disparity within these classes does not always occur intentionally, having female students interact with women who have overcome statistical odds and established themselves in these fields would be nothing less than empowering.