It’s difficult to write about the discrimination of women in STEM – or any other field – in 2018. It’s something that firmly belongs in the past, and yet, by any measure, it appears to be a somewhat Sisyphean struggle for women to work on an even playing field with men.
A new survey by the Pew Research Center has highlighted just how prevalent the problem is. There’s a lot to break down here, but the lowlight is that 50 percent of women in all STEM jobs have experienced discrimination at work, compared to 19 percent of men.
The most common forms of gender discrimination experienced by women are earning less than their male counterparts (29 percent) and being treated as if they were incompetent (29 percent).
Discrimination appears to be more prolific for women working in computer jobs (74 percent), for women who hold postgraduate degrees (62 percent), and for women in STEM settings where men outnumber women (78 percent).
Additionally, 22 percent of women in STEM jobs said that they have experienced sexual harassment at work.
There’s a lot more to the survey, and you can read the results in full here. It also found, for example, that minorities experience far more discrimination in STEM settings, particularly black STEM workers.
The findings, as disheartening as they are in isolation, are just several pieces of a far larger jigsaw.
Take your pick from the pile of evidence. Grant reviewers are regularly found to be biased against women in most fields. When anonymous, women are seen as being better coders than men – but not when their identity is known to reviewers.
Whether it's active discriminatory efforts from colleagues and supervisors or whether it comes in the form of structural discrimination or unconscious bias, it’s having a hugely detrimental effect.
"Many of my female friends in the STEM careers have their tales of discrimination in the workplace, from subtle sexist remarks to more serious cases of bullying," Yolanda Ohene, a PhD student at University College London, tells IFLScience.
She explains that she has previously experienced a hostile working environment with a male co-worker with more authority, who would question her presence in a laboratory and generally try to undercut her confidence – something that made her "feel vulnerable, victimized and inadequate to be working in the lab."
"I think that the next step after admitting that there is still a problem is for everyone to acknowledge their privileges," Ohene adds.
"Whenever I stand up to present my research at a conference, and look out to an audience of inevitably mostly white male faces, I remember that I am so lucky that someone once promised that they’d never stop believing in me until I believed in myself."
As we reported on last year, far fewer women with science degrees end up going into STEM careers than men; in some fields, the disparity is more akin to a chasm.
In the UK, for example, just 6 percent of qualified engineers are women. In the US, just one-in-five faculty geoscientists are female. There are hints that things are beginning to change – there are proportionally more women in both the life and physical sciences today than in 1990 – but the pace of change is embarrassingly slow.
It’s a dangerous cycle – the lack of women in these jobs makes it harder for others to join, and so on – and the fewer women there are in STEM, the less things will change.
“The findings are shocking, but I am unsurprised,” a female PhD researcher, speaking under condition of anonymity, tells IFLScience. “Discrimination against women is almost an accepted norm in academic circles.”
“When starting my PhD it was made clear that I was not as likely to succeed as my male peers, that I would experience more barriers to career progression, and that the academic currency of promotion was poorly suited to women – who, as a result of their evolutionary history, would have to take time out to bear a child,” she adds.
“It was the first time I’d ever considered my gender a limitation on what I might achieve.”
Although noting that she has been “lucky enough to not have experienced sexual harassment or direct gender discrimination,” she explains that the bias she encounters is a “subtle undercurrent,” one that comes with day-to-day work.
“I don’t believe this bias is intentional, or done with malice, but an unconscious preference that exists for reasons I can’t comprehend.”
Asking what might be done to fix this widespread problem, she suggests that “if there was a clear answer there, we wouldn't be in the situation we're in.”
When it comes to the biggest, most complex problems that we all face, it’s becoming increasingly clear that empowering women will change the world, perhaps even save it. With that in mind, it’s time to consign this discrimination to the dustbin of history.