Legislation signed into law this month will help schools and youth sports organizations across the…
DeKalb, Ill. — When it comes to narrowing the gender gap in STEM fields, marketing to young girls with Barbie dolls, cute toys and lots of pink isn’t cutting it, Northern Illinois University researchers say.
In some ways, “pink-washing” is feminizing STEM in a way that’s detrimental. Some of today’s students even call it “unrealistic, insulting and unnecessary.”
One student told researchers she’d rather see a real Ph.D.-holding scientist in her own lab. “Don’t overemphasize that she is a woman, just that she is a scientist,” the student said.
The gimmicks gloss over the underlying institutional problems women still face in male-dominated STEM fields. With power structures and inequality still largely unchecked, women are pressured to adapt to the dominant culture and strive to fit in, researchers say. They’re left socially isolated, lacking faculty support and with few women role models.
“We’re just calling for a better approach,” said Presidential Teaching Professor Kristen Myers, the director of the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at NIU. “This isn’t about people being good or bad. There are systems that are really old we need to interrupt. We can’t just do this by making STEM ‘girly.’”
In a paper recently published in the Journal of Gender Studies, Myers and her fellow researchers call this incomplete effort to diversify STEM fields “STEMinism.”
While researchers credit STEM recruitment programs involving school clubs and extracurricular camps with drawing young girls into STEM fields, they say those programs tend to emphasize gender differences instead of commonalities. It’s time to do better, researchers say.
“We need to decouple gender from skills that lead to success in STEM courses,” they say.
Meyers and Courtney Gallaher, an assistant professor on joint appointment between Geographic and Atmospheric Sciences and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Studies at NIU, started out with a seed of a question more than five years ago—Why aren’t more women in science?
That spiraled into examining the experiences of women, and some men, throughout campus. They worked with former graduate student Shannon McCarragher, now an assistant professor in the Department of Social, Cultural and Justice Studies at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, to author the paper, “STEMinism.”
Through interviews with 45 undergraduate STEM majors, all of whom benefitted from intentional efforts to diversify the pipeline into STEM fields, they conclude more work is needed to address the “structures of inequality that must be undone for [women] to have an equal opportunity at success.”
The researchers discovered women in STEM fields are being forced to recognize gender-related barriers to success and remove them on their own. In a lab setting, for instance, many lab managers are men, whereas assistants or technicians are women.
The status-quo sex-segregation has led many women to believe, “that’s just how it is,” researchers found. Group projects in STEM classrooms often are dominated by men while the only woman in the group might be “unfairly involved or flat-out ignored,” one male student reported.
One female STEM student said that, as the only woman in her computer-programming class, none of the men in the class would talk to her.
“STEMinism places the onus on the individual or scientist to succeed in STEM fields rather than interrogating and removing structural barriers to success,” the researchers concluded.
“While STEMinism has opened doors to STEM majors and recruited more young women into STEM fields, it has not provided them with an understanding of the subtle mechanisms that can hinder their success.”
According to the data in the paper, the percentage of women earning STEM degrees has changed little over the years. The proportion of women in most STEM fields at the undergraduate level increased from 1994 to the early 2000s, but since has plateaued or declined.
“Basically, feminist efforts have led people to recognize gender disparities in STEM fields, but they don’t give women the tools to recognize and manage continued gender barriers in school and at work,” Myers said. “We make suggestions for how to do better.”
Among those suggestions—all STEM students should take at least one course in diversity in American society, including introductions to both gender and racial inequality, to help them analyze and debunk negative stereotypes about women and men.
It’s important for STEM majors to have these sensitivities to both overt and covert sexism, researchers say.
Because many STEM fields value individualism and meritocracy, women tend to internalize any failures, the researchers found.
“There’s a perception science itself is a very objective process so scientists themselves must be objective people,” Gallaher said. “Any trouble one might encounter clearly must be an individual fault.”
In some cases, the women themselves would rather not even talk about the problems. They just want to do the science, the researchers say.
“They’re really hard conversations to have to fix this,” Gallaher said. “Unfortunately, the onus falls upon individual women scientists to share their fairly heartbreaking stories.”
Media Contact: Jami Kunzer
Northern Illinois University is a student-centered, nationally recognized public research university, with expertise that benefits its region and spans the globe in a wide variety of fields, including the sciences, humanities, arts, business, engineering, education, health and law. Through its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois, and education centers for students and working professionals in Chicago, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Oregon and Rockford, NIU offers more than 100 courses of study while serving a diverse and international student body.