Gender inequality in science

Image credit flickr

Gender inequality has been one of the barriers making it difficult to retain women in science, technology, engineering and maths. Several studies have shown the existence of gender inequality in sciences.

According to a study by Steffens, Melanie C (2010), On the leaky math pipeline, published by American Psychological Association, implicit gender stereotypes are an important factor in the dropout of female students from math-intensive fields.

Another study by Jacobs, J. E. and Simpkins, S. D. (2005), Mapping leaks in the math, science, and technology pipeline, also suggested that girls are more likely to drop out of mathematics and related courses and less likely to aspire for a career in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than boys after primary school.

I interviewed Andresse St Rose, who is a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a co-author of Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics on what gender inequality in science entails and how an end can be put to it.

When we talk about gender inequality in science, what do we mean?

Inequality incorporates a number of different concepts, including the underrepresentation of women and girls  in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields especially in computer science and engineering in the US. Additionally, women are underrepresented at the highest ranks of faculty in fields like biology where women now earn the majority of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and half of the doctoral degrees awarded. Although some argue that women are less interested than men in certain STEM fields and that gender gaps in participation are due to personal choices; there is evidence that bias and discrimination play a role in shaping women’s experiences in STEM.

Why do we still have disparity in equality in science?

AAUW’s research shows that social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation
of women in science and engineering.  These include societal beliefs about science being a “male domain”,  negative gender stereotypes about female ability in math, erroneous beliefs about innate abilities, the culture and climate of STEM departments at universities that can still be “chilly” for women, and gender bias that continues to limit women’s progress in STEM.

What steps have been taken to ensure there is equality for women in science?

Change needs to happen at multiple levels of education, government and society to ensure gender equity in STEM. There is a federal law – Title IX – that prohibits gender discrimination in education and applies to all programmes that receive federal funds.

Many colleges and universities have taken action to increase the number of women and underrepresented minority students who study and earn degrees in STEM.

Colleges and universities have also made changes to improve the climate for female faculty in STEM by integrating early career female faculty better into the departments through mentoring, and by instituting and promoting policies that support better work-life balance, which is important to women who are often pursuing careers and the bulk of household/caregiving responsibilities in families.

And even at lower levels of education there are efforts to introduce more girls to science in and out of school by exposing them to successful female role models, and promoting hands-on activities to build confidence and interest.

Are there policies to ensure equality in science? If so what have they been able to achieve?

In the US, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The law states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” (20 U.S. Code § 1681).

Title IX covers nearly all colleges and universities. To ensure compliance with the law, Title IX regulations require institutions that receive any form of federal education funding to evaluate their current policies and practices and adopt and publish grievance procedures and a policy against sex discrimination.

When Congress enacted Title IX, the law was intended to help women achieve equal access to all aspects of education at all levels. During the last 40 years, however, Title IX has been applied mostly to sports.
A US government report in 2004 examining the effect of Title IX in STEM disciplines found that federal agencies need to do more to ensure that colleges and universities receiving federal funds comply with Title IX.

In response to these findings, federal agencies, including NASA and the Department of Energy in conjunction with the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, have begun to conduct Title IX compliance reviews more regularly .


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