Varsity celebrates Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day!
International Women’s Day has occurred for over a century. This year we are celebrating by talking about women’s presence and contributions to STEM fields, but also about how recent studies of women in STEM reveal that their percentage in these fields is actually dropping.
It is a well-known fact that the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – are predominantly male dominated. It is, however, a common misconception that they have been characterized by low female participation since their origins. In fact, when it comes to the subject of women and technology, we seem to have regressed.
The First Woman Programmer
Women were among the first programmers during the 20th century, but women’s contribution to programming has even more ancient roots. Mathematician Ada Lovelace may not have had a computer to work on, but was the first computer programmer nonetheless. She was born Ada Byron in 1815 and achieved fame for her work on Charles Babbage’s idea for the first mechanical Analytical Engine. She was the first to publish an algorithm for the machine.
It is likely that Ada Lovelace would not have succeeded if it wasn’t for her mother’s relentless encouragement to pursue mathematics.
Lack of Encouragement
Lack of encouragement seems to be a key factor in women’s low presence in STEM. Girls are interested in STEM. However, according to the American Association of University Women, girls are discouraged from entering STEM fields due to several factors — from limited access to lack of preparation. As of today, women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The gap between man and women’s employment is staggering when we look at the highly lucrative careers in computer science and informatics engineering.
Key Factors in the STEM Gender Gap
- Archaic Gender Stereotypes: STEM fields are often viewed as inherently masculine, with the idea that boys’ and girls’ brains are wired differently. Teachers and parents often underestimate girls’ math abilities and fail to intervene when they encounter difficulties in school.
- Male-Dominated Spaces and Culture: With fewer women in STEM, these fields tend be less accommodating to the cultural changes needed to suit female students and workers. Instead, these rigid and male-dominated cultures are often not supportive of women and minorities.
- Role Models: We could argue that it is not a matter of lack of role models for young girls that fails to inspire their interest in these fields, rather that the impact of women has been historically downplayed. Since the 18th century, there have been a considerable number of women involved in developing scientific computations. Those familiar with the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” will know that women of color were integral in NASA’s Space Race. Before 1960, when our world began using more modern software, computer programming was considered to be “soft work” and was actually women-dominated.
What can be done to reduce the gender gap in STEM?
- Dismantle the pervasive stereotypes about women being less suited for technology or math, and men being more naturally inclined towards technology-focused or math-oriented subjects.
- Actively engage and support girls who want to either study or pursue a career in STEM. Teachers, parents, and STEM professionals can work together to encourage young girls by acknowledging their interests and providing them with the proper resources they need.
- Tackle the attitudes and cultures that are still present in both the academic world and the workplace that discourage women’s involvement in STEM. There are laws in place to prevent discrimination in education and in the workplace, but attitudes have not caught up yet.
- Discuss the historical contributions that women have brought to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. By highlighting their impact and work in various scientific fields, girls may be more inspired to develop their STEM skills and pursue careers in STEM fields. All they need is a bit of curiosity, genuine interest and natural inclination, along with a positive nurturing environment.
We hope you will join us in celebrating International Women’s Day and supporting women everywhere to explore their interests in STEM subjects and fields!