Institutional Support Needed for Women in STEM

Although physics drew my interest long before I applied to Emory, I only began considering pursuing physics beyond the undergraduate level during my second semester. Perhaps I could be like my professors one day, teaching and mentoring the next generation of scientists while probing into science’s unsolved mysteries. But it takes considerable effort to imagine myself working in a department with a faculty comprised of only 19 percent women, especially considering Emory is more balanced than the national average of 14 percent. According to the American Institute of Physics, about 47 percent of physics departments at U.S. bachelor’s-granting institutions contain only male faculty.

At Emory, there are many talented and high-achieving women in science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields who provide inspiration and motivation to students. Unfortunately, as former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith explained, the difficulties women in STEM face is “the story of a thousand paper cuts.” I find that many small instances of sexism have worn me down. Individually, I could forget them, but combined I cannot simply brush them off.

One impediment that many women, especially women of color, face is stereotype threat, psychological stress caused by the fear of conforming to a negative stereotype. My decision to pursue physics was shaken last semester when my multivariable calculus midterm went poorly. After turning in my exam, I found myself doubting my ability to succeed academically in physics and math. However, I feared that if I failed my class or dropped my major, some would see it as the inevitable result of my gender. Because there are so few women in physics, I must represent not only myself, but women as a whole, a responsibility I never desired.

Tech leaders, politicians and professors alike argue that we need more diversity in STEM; however, both the STEM workforce and academia remain unwelcoming toward women. The American Institute of Physics found that female physicists receive less research funding and lab space than their male colleagues, even when controlling for external variables. Furthermore, a 2012 Yale study sent science professors at top American universities near-identical resumes, the only difference the name at the top: John or Jennifer. John was rated 7 percent higher in areas like hireability and competence. Additionally, John was offered a starting salary 13 percent higher than Jennifer was.

The assumption that women are not as smart as men in analytically-rooted fields like math and science manifests itself daily in the behaviors I observe in my classes. When my male peers interrupt and ignore women, they demonstrate that they view women’s thoughts as less valuable. However, out of many small instances of sexism, my most memorable moment was when one of my male classmates in general chemistry offered to tutor me so I could improve my grade. We had only just met, yet he assumed that he was performing so far above me that tutoring was more appropriate than collaborating. In fact, my test average was well over 100 percent without his help. Women — in STEM and other fields — are not damsels, helplessly awaiting male saviors; we are instead fighting through systematic impediments, created by centuries of male authority.  

Stereotypes and the absence of role models sow doubt in women’s minds about whether they belong in STEM. Considering the tangible disadvantages, like less funding and lower incomes, women face at a professional level, it should be no surprise that, whether you are examining past physics Nobel Prize winners or the faculty in Emory’s Mathematics and Science Center, most of the faces you see will be male.

Despite these discouraging facts and figures, I am still majoring in physics for the same reason I originally decided to study physics: I love the subject. However, entering a field where I will be constantly fighting to prove my competency and aptitude against centuries-old stereotypes seems a foolhardy path towards making the kind of contributions I aim to make in the world. I applaud the brilliance and tenacity of everyone who pursues a career in STEM, especially those of women and nonbinary individuals. Until more men in science and math exercise their power and privilege in supporting others, sexism will continue to haunt STEM fields. In the meantime, hopefully women can find encouragement in each other and determination within themselves to succeed despite the odds against them. May the next generation of scientists not be so burdened.

Charlotte Selton is a College sophomore from Sacramento, Calif.