Gender Disparity in the STEM Fields


Sanghun Byun

When we try to picture what a physicist or a mathematician looks like, we often picture a man, because science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have substantial gender disparity in enrollment. Indeed, according to a global study conducted between 2017 and 2018, women make up less than 30% of all STEM fields undergraduates. More specifically, merely 39% of physics, 19% of computer science, 19% of engineering and technology, and 37% of mathematics undergraduates are women. (We should also note that the opposite holds true for liberal arts fields; however, the disparity there is significantly smaller.) But why may this be the case?

The traditional idea that gender discrimination causes the disparity was challenged by the findings of researchers and psychologists Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary, who observed that there is a “gender-equality paradox” in STEM. In other words, the more gender-equal a country is—or the more women are given choices and opportunities to pursue their interests—the fewer women enrollment there is in STEM subjects. Therefore, the study concludes that the gender disparity must be a result of choice rather than discrimination. Another popular claim is that men are naturally better in these subjects than women; however, multiple studies in the past have failed to show any clear biological differences in a woman’s and a man’s cognitive abilities in these subjects. So why may girls be more reluctant to choose STEM fields than boys?

One reason for this may be the lack of representation of women in these subjects. Marian Wright Edelman, the Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund, once said, “you can't be what you can't see.” I find this statement to be evident when looking at the types of prominent academics the STEM field has: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Euclid, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and more modern ones such as Stephen Hawkings, Elon Musk, Tim Berners-Lee, and many more men. These figures serve as role models for everyone; however, males are inevitably going to feel a stronger connection to these academics due to their shared gender than will females. By exposing children only to male representation in the STEM field, we are making it hard for females to see themselves in the same position.

Indeed, many women in the STEM field were historically ignored by society. During WWII in the U.S., for instance, women played key roles in improving weapons and creating the electronic numerical integrator and computer (ENIAC), or the “first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer.” However, their contributions were unpublicized and uncredited. Perhaps the obscurity given to women’s accomplishments serves to sway girls’ interest in these fields.

Moreover, the difference in the raisings of boys and girls may contribute to the disparity. Men were historically the decision-makers of families, while women were responsible for nurturing their children; as a result, perhaps we are subconsciously teaching boys to be pragmatic, and girls to be abstract. Indeed, according to a paper published by Judith E. Owen Blakemore and Renee E. Centers at MIT, boys are mainly given building materials, or “spatial-temporal” toys, while girls are given “domestic items” such as dolls. Perhaps the discrepancy in their raisings influences how they think later in life.

But at the end of the day, if the gender disparity in the STEM fields is a result of individual choices, why does it matter? It is important that we consider the impacts of society’s actions on other’s decisions, as it would be immoral of us to continuously shape the minds of one sex differently from the other. Moreover, just as much as it is important to get everyone’s voices heard in politics, it is equally important to have both women’s and men’s representation in the STEM fields, which will arguably shape our future dramatically. It is therefore crucial that we ensure that our actions do not unfairly sway a gender to favor certain subjects over others.