Life as a Woman in STEM

By the Fancy Comma, LLC Team

In this blog, we interview a physics PhD candidate about sexism in science and the factors contributing to the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

While the number of women entering the STEM fields and working as researchers and professors is growing, the gender gap is still significant. According to the American Association of University Women, “the gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs… like computer science [only 25.2% women] and engineering [only 16.5% women].”

While women earn the majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they make up less than a third of the STEM workforce.

According to the United States Census, women are slowly making gains, but more work remains to make STEM more inclusive. “In 1970, women made up 38% of all U.S. workers and 8% of STEM workers. By 2019, the STEM proportion had increased to 27% and women made up 48% of all workers,” writes the Census. While women have made gains in medicine, law, and business, few women are becoming scientists and engineers, notes the AAUW in a recent report. This is despite the fact that women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, as the Pew Research Foundation writes.

Gender bias, stereotyping, and discrimination have contributed to the gender gap in science. These biased practices begin in undergraduate and graduate studies and continue into the workplace.

To understand more about how the gender gap affects women studying in STEM fields, what is being done, and what work still needs to be done to address this issue, we interviewed a woman at a major university in the United States, who is currently a PhD candidate in physics. 

She has focused on physics through undergraduate and graduate studies, now focusing on Cosmology. She has worked in a university lab as a research assistant on multiple major university projects. She has also served in groups supporting women in STEM and physics. 

Given the sensitive nature of the discussion, we have maintained the identity of the interviewee. Read on to hear her experiences with gender bias in STEM and her thoughts on the source and fixes for this issue.

Fancy Comma (FC): Do you know about how many women there are, or what percentage of the student population are women, in your physics doctoral program? What percent of professors are women? In your understanding, is this demographically representative of STEM fields in general, and physics in particular?

Physics Doctoral Candidate (PDC): The student body in the department is about 25%, or 40, women. Sadly, this reflects a recent and large push from the department to increase this ratio. It was worse before. Six of the forty-six professors in the department, or 13%, are women. Again, this reflects a recent push to improve this number. Three of those six women were hired within the last five years.

To my understanding, STEM in general also has a very low proportion, maybe about 25% women. So, these more recent numbers appear to be reflecting that general trend in STEM. Although again, we have had recent incoming classes that are about half women. So, again, this is a recent change. 

I think, historically, physics, engineering and computer science are all the worst offenders of the gender gap…when you look around undergraduate classes and graduate schools. 

line graph depicting bachelor's degrees earned by women in STEM fields
Bachelor’s degrees earned by women, by major. Source: American Physical Society

FC: What factors do you think contribute to the gender gap in STEM?

PDC: To me, the largest factor is the [academic and professional] culture. There is an overall tendency toward a toxic, misogynistic, and systemically privileged culture in STEM, especially in the context of graduate students, those in post-doctoral programs, and professors. 

Many, maybe most, of the people in these positions come from a privileged background of constant praise and reward for believing they were more capable than other people. This breeds a really toxic culture that reinforces stereotype threat for marginalized groups and keeps them from being “one of the bunch.” 

FC: What, if any, resources are available to connect and empower women in your physics department? What resources don’t yet exist that should?

PDC: There are very few women in the department. There is one professor who we informally all go to for advice and solidarity, which is helpful, but there are no official avenues for women, let alone BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color], to have a mentor from the same underrepresented group. This is a huge failing. 

FC: What are the major obstacles to women’s entrance and/or success in your physics doctoral program? What about in the job market and/or their careers?

PDC: One issue is that the admissions committee for our doctoral program does not include women or BIPOC. So, there is no representation of marginalized groups there. In addition, most of the department – and thus the preliminary exam committees, etc. – are almost exclusively white men as well. This perpetuates a serious lack of representation for graduate students from marginalized groups. 

This can cause many obstacles for women. For example, because the examiners are all men, there is a built-in gender bias. If you are taking an oral exam and you don’t have the temperament expected among men – perhaps you take more time to think about the questions or you aren’t comfortable interrupting people to get your thoughts out – this is perceived as a signal that you are not as smart, knowledgeable, or ambitious in your field. This causes problems with passing the exams. In fact, I believe that the department has statistics showing a trend of women scoring lower on the exams. 

FC: What are the major supports available in the field (beyond academic programs)?

PDC: There are a lot of resources for women, outside the university, to get support and mentoring, which is really great. In large physics collaborations, there are a larger number of women (because there are more people in general) and some of these groups have official mentoring programs. 

FC: What is your most salient memory of an experience with gender discrimination in your program?

PDC: When I was in my first introductory physics course as an undergraduate, one of the professors had a chat with me, while I was eating breakfast one morning, completely unprompted. He asked me about my ambitions. I told him that I wanted to go to graduate school and ultimately be a professor. He responded by telling me that only 50% of people make it through the physics major, then only 50% of those students get into graduate school. 

He then said that even if I made it that far, I would “probably drop out to start a family,” so, I should just focus on getting a job after my undergraduate degree. The gender bias was transparent given that he didn’t give this speech to my husband, who was also an undergraduate physics major at the time…

FC: What supports could have been made available to overcome or counteract this discrimination?

PDC: I think the ONLY future of STEM is one with diversity among students and professionals. There is countless research and a ton of anecdotal evidence proving that teams with diversity make more significant discoveries, more progress, and ultimately advance science further. 

STEM research is the cutting edge of knowledge. By definition, we are the people pushing out from the bubble into the unknown. How much farther could we be pushing if we had different viewpoints on problems? Different working methodologies? Different strategies? 

For fields that are trying to discover the currently unknowable, it seems obvious that diversity of skills, mindsets, backgrounds, etc., are an essential piece of that puzzle. Throughout history, challenging the status quo is how science advances, and it’s time to challenge the status quo of what a scientist “looks like.”

Our interviewee completed her undergraduate work in Physics, Astrophysics and Math. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Cosmology. She is currently part of a large collaborative project with the university. She has previously been the recipient of a large national science grant. Finally, she has served in various roles in groups supporting women in STEM, such as Women In Physics groups, holding mentoring and outreach positions.


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