Seven Ways To Overcome Gender Bias In STEM, According To Kick-Ass Women In The Fields Themselves

In general, a majority of respondents see the lack of female role models and representation in prestigious roles as a hurdle for gender equity. Solis Images/Shutterstock

Research shows that gender diversity facilitates innovation, scientific discovery, and happier work environments, yet globally women represent less than one-third of researchers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Publishing their work in the Nature journal Palgrave Communications, an international coalition of female researchers has identified the most common things holding women back, and how we can correct them.

The team looked at female representation in coastal geoscience and engineering specifically, in societies, journals, and conferences. They also conducted a global survey, however, it had 314 self-reported responses (34 percent male, 65 percent female, 1 percent other) and its small sample size should be taken into account.

The authors note that gender stereotyping, i.e. women not being taken seriously or seen as competent, is the biggest obstacle for women in STEM. Respondents reported this to be particularly common when it came to fieldwork tasks like heavy lifting and deploying instruments, despite this being integral to the skill and productivity required for later career progression.

Women also reported being excluded from after-hours social events, which in turn excludes them from discussions and collaborations that happen outside of the workplace, creating a “boys club”. 

A number of respondents reported that the “maternal wall” was seen as a risk in pursuing a career. The expectation that a woman’s job performance is affected by her having children prompted women to feel they had received recruitment bias or discrimination due to pregnancy and maternity leave.

Harassment and “macroaggression” – derogative, indirect comments or actions – happened in fieldwork situations. On the other hand, male respondents also referred to “positive discrimination towards females”, which they said could lead to the recruitment of women who aren’t suitable for the job.

In general, the majority of respondents see the lack of female role models and representation in prestigious positions as a hurdle for gender equity. More than five times more woman than men felt held back in their career because of gender inequity, so the authors came up with seven potential solutions.

1. Advocate for more women in prestigious roles

The team note in their study that "collaborating with more women, ensuring a fair representation of women as keynote speakers at conferences, or affirmative action hiring will increase female representation in prestige roles".

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2. Promote high-achieving females

We should make women more visible as role models and recognize their achievements with awards. 

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3. Create awareness of gender bias

Men and women both present inherent hiring biases, but those hiring personnel should be made aware of this and be trained in conscious hiring practices.

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4. Speak up

If you notice a panel or editorial board that is not well represented, the authors say you should say something.

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  1. 5. Get better support for return-to-work
  2. Having better support for mothers (and fathers) returning to work, such as longer maternity leave and flexible work conditions, is important for productivity.
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6. Redefine success

The authors say success means different things to different people and acknowledging those differences and placing priority on different areas, such as field work or lab work, is a step in the right direction.

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7. Encourage more women to enter the discipline at a young age

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    "Our findings are important not only for our field of research but also for other fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and beyond," said study author Ana Vila-Concejo in a statement

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