Breaking the STEM Ceiling

The involvement of women in science has been an area of active investigation and research, with particular emphasis on encouraging women to become more visible in traditionally male-dominated fields such as physics, engineering, and mathematics. Following their entrance into the workforce and acceptances into institutions of higher education, women are aspiring to pursue degrees and careers in the sciences in growing numbers.

The sciences still lag behind humanities-based disciplines in female enrollment, though many divisions of research-based sciences have, in the last twenty years, experienced significant increases in female participation. These fields include those relating to medicine, biology and ecology, as well as the more traditionally gender-aligned fields of nursing and applied psychology. However, even as the emphasis on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields increases, female involvement in the applied and more quantitative sciences remains surprisingly low. Is science losing its appeal for young women? Or are women simply not as predisposed as men to careers in science?

A Better Approach

Discussing gender disparities in science often leads to the question: how can we encourage women to become more involved? While a logical query, Meg Urry, the Israel Munson Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University and the first female Physics Department Chair, wholeheartedly rejects the underlying premises of this question. Urry instead encourages “a better approach” to increasing women participation in science. “The real question is how do we keep from pushing women out,” she says, “not how do we attract them.”

Professor Meg Urry. Courtesy of James Porto.

“The simple truth is that young women in high school have the same math and quantitative preparation as their male classmates. There is no underlying difference in ability; it simply isn’t demonstrated in any of the data or studies,” asserts Urry. Therefore, how can we explain that less than 25% of those majoring in science or engineering are women?

Urry has an answer: “Women and men have very similar student profiles; in fact many of the top students in the physics department are women, but the differences in numbers are largely issues of climate and culture and not class material or structure.” In other words, “cultural conditioning” discourages women from the hard sciences, in which they otherwise have the potential to excel. Women can, and do, have passion for disciplines such as physics or chemistry, but the modern climate is unwelcoming to women and their unique skill sets. In order for women to overcome these cultural boundaries, significant changes to our current educational system and workplaces must be made.

Reconciling a Male-Oriented Climate

Data concerning gender differences in education and the workplace reveal characteristics that, on average, correlate quite well with women’s choice in a college major and, later, life path. One of the most telling gendered personality characteristics is that women tend to internalize blame whereas men tend to externalize it. In this way, women are more easily discouraged from careers that have high risks of failure. Accordingly, women often seek careers that help people, justifying the risk of failure with the value of higher application.

Urry states that changes in learning climate and material emphasis would remedy this problem. “Women are much more interested in high context learning, [which is learning] that addresses questions of how this knowledge can be applied and why this or that is important. Physics is one of the fields that will help people the most, but we often forget to emphasize that.” Adopting a climate that fuels female interest by motivating students to push forward through failures will allow more women to continue pursuing their passions for science without becoming discouraged.

Third-year Electrical Engineering graduate student Monika Weber, agrees with this analysis. She is currently working on a revolutionary “alpha-screen” for single-bacterial detection in Professor Mark Reed’s lab, and says the fact that the device “could potentially help save 4 million lives from infection-related deaths” motivates her work enormously. She explains that working in the male-dominated field of electrical engineering has presented significant challenges throughout her career. However, Weber also states the “open environment” at Yale encourages female social networking and reverses much of the discrimination that would otherwise prevail.

Weber is also a fellow at the electrical engineering Graduate Leadership Program, a female-dominated program that is slowly changing the oppressive academic climate women often experience. This program helps women “develop the skills they are naturally good at such as communication, interpersonal leadership, and teamwork” creating a climate that rewards women by “cultivating an ambitious attitude” instead of deterring them.

Professor Meg Urry at the Women in Physics Conference. Courtesy of Yale Physics Department.

The Influence of Culture

In her recent article “Diminished by Discrimination,” Urry sums up current science and gender issues with the statement, “every woman was always compared to other women, as if every woman scientist is female first and a scientist second.” Women are too often looked at as an anomaly in the sciences rather than an equally capable contributor. The playing field in the sciences is not yet equal, and perhaps never will be unless traditional gender roles are eliminated from the workplace. In particular, when a woman must choose between having a family and a successful career, she is often pressured into choosing family over her ambitions.

As Urry began her post-doctoral work in astronomy and theoretical astrophysics, she soon recognized the implicit — or, in a few cases, explicit — gender biases in the workplace. She recalls with a hollow laugh a particular lecture in which a professor used a blurred slide on the projector in order to demonstrate a physical principle. He showed the image coming into focus and, as the image became clearer, Urry realized the image was a topless woman. This garnered a laugh from her male classmates, but alienated and disgusted her and the one other woman in the room. She identifies small gender-aligned incidents like these as “deeply harmful” to women.

Examples like the blurred photograph show that, in the words of Urry, “the culture of the field is defined by men; they are the majority leaders and have a tremendous role to play.”

Rachel Kurchin (PC ‘13) showing a liquid nitrogen experiment at the Women in Physics Conference. Courtesy of Yale News.

Treating Women as Equals

To level the playing field in the sciences, men and women must work together to reverse the cultural conditioning that causes most people, even women themselves, to undervalue the achievements of females in comparison to those of men. Urry claims that programs that compensate for innate human biases, like affirmative action, are a positive and necessary good. She notes that the opposition to affirmative action suggests that women are then favored unfairly over men, but this attitude “marginalizes the achievements of women” and simply is not supported empirically. Affirmative action reverses that “implicit, unspoken weighed integral in our heads that favors the majority leader” by giving the minority, whether it be women or another group, a chance for a more objective evaluation. Students at Yale, including undergraduate senior Environmental Studies major Becca Stern, agree that “there will be a point when affirmative action isn’t needed in the sciences, but until that day, significant steps need to be taken to ensure that women can gain equal footing in a culture that marks them down by their gender alone.”

The Women In Science At Yale (WISAY) Mentoring Program hosts a Halloween Party. Courtesy of WISAY.

Women in Science at Yale

It is noteworthy that Yale has more women in science than most other institutions worldwide. A 2009 study by the National Academy of Sciences on Yale revealed, “for the most part, men and women faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university, and gender does not appear to have been a factor in a number of important career transitions and outcomes.” The number of women in the engineering discipline, on average, is approximately 35% at Yale (in 2010) compared to the worldwide average of less than 10% women enrollment. In an address to the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at Yale, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Vanderlick noted, “the numbers are growing!”

Yale offers the kind of environment for women that Urry champions: one that welcomes women as equal contributors and speaks to their preference of interdisciplinary, purpose-driven learning. With the arise of organizations such as the SWE and Women in Science at Yale (WISAY), as well as departmental networking programs for women, Yale embraces social environments that help empower women. While Yale’s initial steps have had significant impact on reducing gender stereotypes, there is more work to be done before true gender equality is reached.

The ultimate goal of science is advancement and progress — having the best talent, regardless of gender, will achieve that universally held purpose. Fifth-year Applied Physics graduate student, Nitin Rajan, agrees: “Truly, I don’t think it matters whether the person working next to me is a guy or a girl because smart people exist across the board, and acknowledging that is the only way science can actually reach the height of innovation.” If our concern is advancing science, then we must not reject women from participating and adding to that advancement. Science, as a discipline, is not inherently gendered, so the value of its contributors should not be either.


About the Author
Kara Brower is a junior in Berkeley College, working towards a joint degree in Biomedical Engineering and Chemistry. She works in Professor Mark Reed’s electrical engineering lab on microfluidic integration of nanowire biosensors.

The author would like to thank Professor Meg Urry for her help on this article and guidance about pushing through as a woman in engineering.

Further Reading
Rosser, Sue. “Attracting and Retaining Women in Science and Engineering” Academe, 2003.
Urry, Meg. “Photons Have No Gender:A Woman’s View of Physics.” Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering, Stanford University Press, 2008, p.p. 150-156.
Cornic, Vivian. Women in Science: Then and Now. City University of New York, 2009.