Women In STEM Around The World: Where We've Improved, And Where We Can Do Better

Signs at the recent Women's March, the largest demonstration in US history. Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Climbing Mountains

Women face an uphill struggle in many respects compared to men. Just as an example, the gender pay gap won’t close completely until the year 2186 at the current rate, and there are plenty of men (and women) in power trying very hard to convince the world that women aren’t strong or smart enough to deserve equal pay.

Women face plenty of prejudices when it comes to science too. The seemingly endemic problem of harassment and sexism of women in the workplace also includes STEM jobs. There is a well-documented bias against hiring women over men across a wide range of careers, and STEM is no exception.

One study revealed that both male and female employers were twice as likely to hire men over women regardless of background. Another computer science-related study found that, when coding anonymously for review, women were often seen as better than their male counterparts. However, when the sex of the coders were made public, men were suddenly seen as being more competent.

Even in STEM careers, men cite themselves and their own work way more than women do, and analyses suggest that this is because it’s socially acceptable for men to be ambitious, but women seen doing the same are considered to be threatening in some way. Go figure.

Women being recruited into STEM degrees is on the up, but there's a long, long way to go yet. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Consequently, female first or co-authorship of academic papers has gone down. It increased from 27 to 37 percent from 1994 to 2014, but ever since, it has plateaued, and even begun to decline in many journals. The largest step-change occurs at the post-doc level, where plenty of men persevere but a huge number of women drop out.

“We need to think about ways to dismantle the structural practices that prevent women from staying in science,” Aimee Eckert, a doctoral student in cell biology at the University of Sussex, told IFLScience.

“A friend of mine is a PhD student and a single mother. She's brilliant and would make a great lab leader one day,” Eckert said. “But she will be penalized in academia for staying in one city or even in the UK because of the pressure to work in different environments to climb the career ladder.”

Noting that there are “too many qualified women getting neglected” for talks, public seminars, and panel discussions, Eckert said that she’d “like to see more practices that don't label women as ‘the other’ in science, as opposed to men being the norm.”

Even from a young age, girls are taught in many parts of the world that STEM jobs are boys’ jobs, not anyone’s. This is despite the fact that boys and girls perform equally well in STEM subjects in terms of standardized testing results, all other things considered equal.

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This may be part of the reason why many of them decide not to study in a STEM field at all.

UK government data shows that back in 2013-2014, 52 percent of male undergraduates were on a STEM course at university, compared to just 40 percent of women. Just 20 percent of A-level (optional, advanced high school final exams) physics students are female, and this statistic has remained steady for the last quarter-century.

Computer science degrees, which are becoming increasingly important to the well-being of nations these days, are dominated by men. Just 18 percent of US computer science graduates are women.

In the US, a 2015 report shows that both men and women were slightly more likely to be taking STEM degrees than they were a decade ago. This sounds good, but there’s a caveat: The share of STEM degrees has gone down for women over the last 10 years as men are taking a bigger slice of the pie here. So as men rocket forwards in STEM, women are falling behind.

Remember that this is just a handful of wealthy nations we’re talking about here. In much of the developing world, women don’t even have access to higher education. For the first time in history, just this year, there are as many girls as boys in primary education – a great achievement, but one that highlights how far we have yet to come.

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