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Culture stifles women in STEM fields

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Rakshak Adhikari

Staff Writer

While women make up 47 percent of the total workforce in the U.S., women occupy only 24 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to a 2017 report from the Office of U.S. Chief Economist, the share of women in math-intensive fields is pitifully low, with 14 percent of engineering jobs being handled by women.

Out of the 206 individuals who have been awarded the physics Nobel Prize, two have been women. No woman has won a Nobel Prize in physics since 1963.

While it is easy to dismiss the statistics as a function of personal choices and unavoidable social constructs, such massive underrepresentation of women can lead to surprising and unintended consequences beyond the socio-economic sphere.

For example, clinical trials have historically used average males as the test group and failed to consider gender as a factor, resulting in decades of misdiagnosis of women and misprescription of drugs because symptoms of diseases and drug receptivity are not always the same in women as they are in men.

Lack of opportunities in the sciences are often cited as the major reasons for the low participation of women, but a cursory look at research institutions shows that this explanation is not entirely true.

Advertisements for almost all research positions, ranging from tenure-track professorships to summer research fellowships, state that they welcome women and there are numerous programs targeted just for women in science.

“I was not discouraged but actually encouraged to study science,” says Tori Colvin, a junior chemistry and physics double major from Albertville who is actively participating in research in the physics department.

She said making young girls aware of the opportunities in the sciences and letting them know research is an option for them will do much to increase their participation.

Vacancies for research positions often state that they “strongly encourage” female applicants, but the appallingly low number of women who commit themselves to scientific research suggests a latent cultural force triggering a mass exodus of women from research-intensive areas.

While the unwelcoming nature of research centers toward women and widely prevalent gender stereotypes are often blamed, some easily overlooked social scenarios might have a significant say in how young women choose a career path for themselves.

“Young women often lack role models in research-intensive fields,” says Dianne Porter, a lecturer of math and the former chair of the Department of Mathematics and Geomatics at Troy.

“Young girls in middle school and high school don’t see many female engineers and computer scientists, and our society has historically not done well in promoting women as scientists, which is something that needs to change.”