Harvard Study Shows 5 Factors Stopping Women From Entering and Staying in STEM

Posted By Terri Williams on November 11, 2015 at 5:00 pm
Harvard Study Shows 5 Factors Stopping Women From Entering and Staying in STEM
Harvard University

Much has been written about how to close the STEM gender gap and encourage more women to pursue degrees in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. However, equally important are the issues that women face after they graduate from STEM programs – many of which cause them to leave STEM fields. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, “The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM,” highlights the detrimental role of gender biases in the workplace.

According to the study, below are the percentages of U.S. Women in STEM who report:

Black Latina Asian White
having to provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves 77% 65% 64% 63%
that colleagues have suggested they should work fewer hours after having children 8% 9% 37% 26%
that at work, they find themselves pressured to play a stereotypically “feminine role” like office mother 8% 28% 41% 36%
that women in their work environments support one another 56% 79% 71% 77%
they’ve been mistaken for either administrative or custodial staff 48% 47% 23% 32%


According to the study’s authors (Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall), these survey responses are indicative of 5 gender biases: prove-it-again, the tightrope, the maternal wall, tug of war, and isolation.

GoodCall spoke with a range of experts to analyze each of these biases in terms of their impact on women in STEM workplaces:

1. Prove-it-again

This bias is based on a lack of recognition of the efforts and competence of women in STEM professions, according to Dr. Beena Sukumaran, Professor and Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rowan University in Glasboro, New Jersey. “This difficulty manifests itself from the time a woman steps into a majority male STEM classroom and transcends into the professional realm. Having to prove oneself over and over again undermines the woman’s confidence and ability to move up in the profession,” says Sukumaran.

The bias demonstrates that women continue to fall into stereotypical paradigms, according to Dr. Karen M. Scolforo, President of Central Penn College in Summerdale, Pennsylvania. She explains, “When faced with an opportunity outside of a norm, the word ‘norm’ being defined as within the stereotypical paradigm, women can face harsh criticism, higher expectations, and a warped performance spectrum – which means that women are expected to perform at higher levels to earn their right to choose an unorthodox career.”

For example, Scolforo says she was recently asked to speak to a rotary group of over 100 attendees, and discovered table placards with the name of her facilities director – who is a man.  It was assumed that he was the President of Central Penn College, and Scolforo was his assistant.

2. The tightrope

The second bias facing women in STEM is the notion that competence is a masculine trait, and women should only display feminine behavior.  It’s a tightrope that Courtney Casburn Brett, owner and architect at Casburn Brett Architecture in Daphne, Alabama knows well.  “As the youngest entrepreneur-architect in the country, I have experienced a rapid rise in a STEM field with only 18% women professionals. A colleague once described another female architect as very ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ and followed that with ‘a little like you’ – which was not a compliment of my confidence and competence,” says Brett.

It’s a fine line that women in STEM routinely have to tread to be considered non-threatening and acceptable, according to Sukumaran. Women face a constant dilemma on what the right balance of feminine should be in the STEM professions. If one is perceived as too feminine, you might not be taken seriously, especially in the majority-men STEM professions, while if you are perceived as too masculine, you would be considered too aggressive.”

Sukumaran explains, “While aggressive behavior from a man would be perceived as the right touch of leadership, a woman who is aggressive is characterized as ‘angry’ and ‘unfeminine.’ And unless these societal norms change, women will be far and few in STEM professions.”

3. The maternal wall

The third bias facing women in STEM is the perception that they lose their drive and competence after they have children.  “I navigated my doctoral program as a single mother with three children,” says Dr. Laura Hall, Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Texas, El Paso. “Not only were there people who told me that I couldn’t do it, but there were also people who told me that I shouldn’t even try,” says Hall.

However, she says, “Personally, I was never more committed to a job until I had a family to take care of, and I have found in my own career that single parents are the most committed, the most hard-working, and the most responsible students that I have.”

4. Tug of war

The study also revealed that sometimes women in STEM feel that they are competing with other women for the “female” spot on the team.  Dr. Denise J. Gregory, Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Director of Diversity and Intercultural Initiatives in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, says, “As a scientist, it is extremely important to mentor and support women in STEM careers. Experienced female scientists may better understand the barriers other female STEM professionals experience. Once you become a successful scientist, it’s important to reach back and help others through their journey.”

And Erin L. Albert, MBA, PharmD, JD, Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice and Director of Continuing Education at Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Indianapolis, adds, “I’d like to think there is a special place in heaven for women who help other women – and men.  If we don’t help each other out, we will continue to lose.”

5. Isolation

There are several factors that contribute to the isolation felt by many women in STEM.

Hall says,  “I have been the only woman on my faculty for 15 years.  It is very difficult to socialize for different reasons.  The worst is that many times, spouses do not appreciate their partners having dinners, lunches, golf games, many of the things the men do together, with the single, opposite sex.”

Hall says that the men don’t want to cause trouble at home, so they don’t include her. “Believe it or not, an adjunct instructor once told me that I resembled his ex-girlfriend and he couldn’t speak to me,” she relates.

Hall also shares, “When I was single mother, it was impossible to travel to conferences because I did not have the resources to have somebody stay with my children for three to four days.  Although the conference expenses were paid, the incidental expenses – babysitters, transportation, and food – were too expensive for me to afford and so I missed a lot of outside activities crucial to my career.”

As a young engineer, Elizabeth Dell, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology and Faculty Associate to the Provost for Female Faculty at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York recalls trying to decide which group to sit with at lunch. “I was one of only a few, young engineers in my department and the only woman.  The options seemed to be sitting at a table with the engineers – all men – where common discussion topics ranged from golf in the summer to hunting in the fall, or sitting with the women whose conversations seemed to revolve around day care centers and brands of diapers.”

Although that was 20 years ago, Dell has a young niece who is also a female engineer and recently reported similar difficulties at a company she worked for.  “Her group traveled together often and after work was done, the men would go out for drinks.  She didn’t feel comfortable joining the group and felt that she missed out on business related conversations and connections at the after-hours events.  She left the company,” says Hall.

So – what’s the solution?

There’s no single, simple way to eradicate these biases from the workplace. However, there are several actions that, when combined, may help to turn the tide. Albert says,Smart, successful men are liked and promoted. Smart, successful women are not liked, and are a threat. The only way I know how to work around this is to work twice as hard as men, and expect half as much credit. Eventually, you’ll be so good that they can’t ignore you – to quote Steve Martin.”

In any event, women must continue expressing their opinions and bringing valuable conversation to the table, according to Gregory.  “It can be discouraging when you see that you might be the only female around to speak up on issues and problems, in particular scientific issues that directly affect women.  However, in doing so, it will inform and remind others of the importance of having different viewpoints and ideas that contribute to the field of science,” says Gregory.

Sukumaran says more women need to pursue well-paying STEM professions so that the majority male culture can be altered. “Also, employers need to make a concerted effort to ensure their employees are aware of unconscious bias and provide them with training to overcome it,” she adds.

Creating and expanding programs that help address these evolving challenges can help both recruit and retain females in STEM professions, says Dr. Callie Babbitt, Assistant Professor of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the 
Rochester Institute of Technology.  “The Society of Women Engineers is one example: they have programs that span from K-12 to the professional workplace and have developed several programs that provide scholarship, education, and networking for advancing women in the engineering field.”

Babbitt says another great example is the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program, which is designed to increase the participation and professional advancement of women working in academic science and engineering careers. “This, in turn, helps create more female faculty role models for college students interested in engineering degrees,” she explains.

Scolforo concludes, “If we’re going to narrow the wage gap, decrease professional segregation, and increase the number of women in STEM – and especially leadership roles – we must stand together to shatter stereotypical paradigms, continue to demonstrate our ability to accomplish anything a man can accomplish, and support each other in the process.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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