Despite the growing number of women across STEM disciplines, there are persistent issues of sexism in the field. We reflect on the language used to describe STEM environments, women's experiences in STEM, and ways to create change that support women in STEM career paths.
Reflect: Is STEM really a “leaky pipeline”?
A common way to describe the persisting attrition of marginalized communities within STEM is the “leaky pipeline.” While this metaphor is useful in raising awareness about attrition from STEM, it ignores the reality that STEM has been constructed to exclude and/or devalue marginalized communities.1, 2Pipelines become leaky, whereas STEM was built with barriers.The emphasis focuses on success as making it through the pipeline and failure as leaking out, implying that it is the choice of the woman to “leak” as the rest of the pipeline of mostly men continue forward, rather than women being actively shut out, undercut, and disregarded. Furthermore, the pipeline metaphor privileges certain career outcomes over others - namely, academic or research-oriented STEM careers.3Privileging specific outcomes ignores the multitude of options available and also reinforces the kinds of environments where STEM is successful – partriarchal, individualistic, and competitive.Consider alternative metaphors which explicitly name how barriers are constructed to trip up marginalized communities and hidden by the meritocracy ruse which facilitates the continued over-representation of privileged communities in STEM, such as the Glass Obstacle Course.4
Learn: Stereotypes and Outcomes for Women in STEM
Women have a complex relationship with their environment in STEM, with persistent bias affecting numerous mental, emotional, and career-related outcomes. Women in STEM feel they must compete with gendered stereotypes about their performance as well as masculine-centric stereotypes about STEM,5which are particularly prevalent for undergraduate women.6Because of these stereotypes around women and STEM, women are less likely to aspire to STEM careers and more frequently feel burnt out by STEM.7, 8, 9Women STEM faculty are less likely to view their tenure expectations as clear when compared to their male peers and are less likely to be satisfied with their work.10Most STEM department chairs have a limited understanding of policies that disproportionately affect women faculty, such as parental leave and tenure clock policies, which means that they are less likely to understand the specific needs of women faculty and therefore do not understand how to create policies that fit women scholar’s needs.11These realities also span across race, as Black women and Latina women experience additional layers of bias and exclusion via racism perpetuated in STEM environments.12, 13These biases interact with perceptions of competency, emotional affect, and more, creating a space where women with intersecting identities feel further marginalized.
- Establish mentorship for women in STEM: Mentorship is a significant method of allyship for women in STEM, as fostering interactions where women’s gender is celebrated and seen as positive can buffer negative environments and outcomes for women in STEM.14 Consider how gender can influence the structure and relationships of mentorship.15 Don’t forget to include training surrounding stereotypes and power dynamics within mentorship.16 Establishing peer mentorship within your department may also lead to better outcomes for women in STEM.17 Programs like CEW&T’s Mentor Collective can also create pathways for women in STEM to internalize narratives of persistence through interactions with successful women professionals.
- Consistently include women in STEM representation: Consistently highlighting women scholars in the classroom and beyond (without tokenizing them) is vital, as this representation can further enhance students’ motivation.18 When talking about historical narratives of STEM, include inventions by women; when discussing current research, bring in women to talk about their research or cite women in the studies discussed. Also consider where you can add intersectional perspectives that highlight race and other identities.
- Affirm women’s place in STEM: One of the most powerful ways to support women in STEM is by explicitly celebrating their successes and affirming their daily contributions (like by thanking them), both one-on-one and in the larger group. These affirmations should also extend to conversations where only men are present, affirming that women deserve their place in STEM, no matter who is present.19
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men - Dr. Caroline Perez examines how gender bias influences data used to construct programs in all facets of our lives, like administrative policies and departmental programs in higher education.
- Video: Picture a Scientist – This PBS documentary includes commentary about the growing number of women in STEM and the systemic barriers that remain for women.
- Article: Female Professors in STEM Reflect on Experiences in Their Fields – This article features narratives of female faculty in a variety of STEM fields, talking about issues with stigma, female-focused policy barriers and more in their own voices.
- Podcast: STEMming in Stilettos – This podcast looks at the experiences of STEM women, describing their struggles with structural inequity as well as their strategies for success.
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