Women in STEM, And How To Increase Their Numbers

There aren’t many women in STEM. As a young boy growing up, I understood why. A career in a STEM-related field seemed boring to me. Who wants to work all by themselves, or get dirty? Aren’t STEM jobs dusty and without creativity? Besides, they’re difficult and I never was very good at them.

I wasn’t the only one who thought like this. Though many of my male classmates decided to study engineering, biochemistry or math, nearly all of the girls were on my team. Back then, I thought nothing of it, but this trend left its mark on society. For example, In the United States, women make up half of the workforce, but less than 25% of STEM jobs.

This can be partly be explained by the relatively small number of girls choosing STEM majors in college. However, even those that do have trouble transitioning to the job market. Around 20% of the undergraduate engineering degrees are held by women, but only 13% of people working in engineering are female. This trend continues at top positions. For example, a mere 16% of top-level STEM professors in Australia are women.

There is a huge opportunity being lost here: 75% of jobs in the fastest-growing industries these days require STEM workers.

In the Netherlands, where SOWISO is located, the problem is significant. According to a 2009 study done by Eurostat comparing 34 countries, the Dutch ranked 29th for percentage of women in tertiary education (51,8%), 31st for percentage of women in engineering, manufacturing and construction (16,1%), and last for percentage of women in science, mathematics and computing (19,0%).

What causes this discrepancy? Oftentimes, people reach for explanations rooted in biology and argue that female brains are just different from their male counterparts. For example, a century ago, Gustav Le Bon, a French scientist, pointed out the difference in brain size between men and women, and added that female brains are ‘closer in size to gorillas.’ He added that this explains the “fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason” in women.

Does this explain why according to a study held among 250,000 15-year-olds, boys did moderately better on math tests? Well, no. In fact, most scholars agree that culture, more than biology, explains the difference.

The difference in male and female brains has nothing to do with brain power. “It is cognition that counts, not the physical matter that does the cognition,” argued Nancy Kanwisher, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Effects of Stereotype Threat

The stereotype that women are worse at math or other analytical subjects has been embedded in many western countries for generations. For example, a recent study asked students from Princeton University to evaluate and choose two highly qualified candidates for an engineering job; one had a better education, the other came with more work experience. 75% of the time, the students would choose the better educated candidate. However, when the educated individual was female, her preference rate dropped to 48%.

This affects both women and men alike: when employers were asked to hire an employee after only having seen photographs of one male candidate and one female candidate, both sexes were twice as likely to choose the male.

Women in STEM: Girls suck at math?
Source: http://xkcd.com/385/

In fact, this phenomenon is so powerful, it also effects the way people, both young and old, see themselves. This is called stereotype threat, and it occurs when a group acts according to the stereotype about them. For example, it has been used to explain why African Americans do worse on the GRE, why women are worse at chess, and why European Americans are worse at sports.

This is why female students who checked a gender box before taking their calculus exam, did worse than students who checked the box afterwards. Another example is a study where women were shown feminine words (e.g. lipstick, pink, doll) before taking a math test, and ended up performing worse than those who weren’t shown these words.

So, when you’re being reminded of the stereotype, you start acting like it. And this has psychological effects as well. A recent study performed by Gijsbert Stoet, Drew Bailey, Alex Moore, and David Geary showed that boys and girls experience different levels of math anxiety.
Women in STEM: gender differences in mathematics anxiety


After surveying more than 700,000 teenagers across 68 nations, they found that in the more developed countries, math anxiety was higher in girls than boys. They even concluded that parents in developed countries put more value and emphasis on their sons having high mathematical skills, but not their daughters.

In 2005, then-President of Harvard University, suggested in a speech that the under-representation of women in STEM could have something to do with a “different availability of aptitude at the high end.” His words sparked much controversy, and are part of the reason he resigned in 2006. However, they are of importance also because they show us something about our deeply held beliefs; namely that individuals are born with an innate talent towards certain subjects. This means that if you’re not born with a talent for languages, or math, you probably will never become very good at it. This is called a ‘fixed mindset.’

This belief is not universally shared. For example, in this article by the New York Times, Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, said: “there is good survey data showing that this disbelief in innate ability, and the conviction that math achievement can be improved through practice […] is a tremendous cultural asset in Asian society and among Asian-Americans.”

The conviction that talent can be learned, also known as a ‘growth mindset,’ might explain why Japanese girls are often on par with their male counterparts on math tests. And not just that, they tended to score higher overall than boys in other countries.

But gender still seems to trump all. One popular study showed that when Asian-American women were reminded of their Asian identities, their math performance improved. When these same women were reminded of their femininity, it had the opposite effect.

A Way Out

The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel, as an increasing number of organizations are trying to change the tide. One example is the VHTO, the National Expert Organisation on Girls/Women and Science/Technology, located in the Netherlands. They organize a large number of events, aimed at a wide range of educational levels; from primary education, all the way to higher education and the transition to the job market.

Their vision is clear: if we want to get more girls into STEM, we need to show them what the real possibilities are. And who is better suited for this job than actual female professionals? That’s why they invite women working in engineering, science, technology and other STEM-related fields to participate in speed-dates with young girls. This allows them to effectively share their stories amongst a large group of teenage girls, who in turn get a better understanding of the endless possibilities in STEM ahead of them.

VHTO has found that Dutch teachers usually have a fixed mindset with regard to girls, but a growth mindset when it comes to boys. For example, when a male student has decent, but not great grades for math, teachers are more likely push him to work a little harder. However, a girl with the same grades is often told to focus on something ‘she’s obviously better at.’ This has a large effect on the increased math anxiety experienced by girls. Therefore, one of the most important things VHTO does is raising awareness amongst educators. Through conferences and trainings, they teach them to recognize how – often without realizing it – they might fuel the misconstrued idea that girls are not fit for STEM fields.

Women in STE<: The protagonists of the upcoming film Hidden Figures
The protagonists of the upcoming film Hidden Figures, and the amazing women they are based on

Luckily, they don’t have to do it alone. An increasing number of TV shows and movies realize the power they have in shaping the identities of their young viewers, and try to show more female scientists, engineers etc. on both the small and big screen.

For example, the upcoming film Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi will tell the story of three fasinating African-American Women who worked at NASA in the early 1960s. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, and is expected to be released in January, 2017.

Additionally, a recent study performed by Lindy Orthia and Rachel Morgain showed an increasing number of women actively engaged in performing scienctific work on the British TV show Doctor Who. Today, female scientists on the show are comparable on nearly every trait, and in equal numbers.

For another inspiring tale, listen here to the story of Dr. Sue Black, who lifted herself out of poverty by studying math & technology. She founded Tech Mums, organizing workshops for mothers to educate them about online security, social media savviness, essential computing skills, app and web design.

Clearly, the time for more women in STEM has come. And for those of you who still aren’t convinced, let me remind you of the words of Justin Trudeau, then newly appointed prime minister of Canada, who when asked about his goal to appoint women to half of his cabinet, said: because it’s 2015.


Let’s talk again soon,


Special thanks to Ayla Kruis, Policy Officer at VHTO

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