Women still face gender bias in math, science fields

Pop culture stereotypes reinforced in shows like "The Big Bang Theory" may be one of many reasons why higher math and science fields continue to be dominated by men.

October 9, 2013

A recent article in the New York Times asking and then answering the perpetual question, "Why are there still so few women in science?" should be required reading for anyone who believes that gender bias in higher math and science fields no longer exists.
 
Author Eileen Pollack—who was one of the first women to receive a bachelor of science degree in physics at Yale in 1978— writes that even in 2013, American women are not only given low expectations from the start for success in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but also are seldom encouraged, sometimes even discouraged, to pursue higher education in these fields. Additionally, Pollack cites several research studies as proof that gender inequality remains a rampant problem in the male-dominated world of STEM careers and academia, especially in the upper echelons of physics, engineering and computer science.  
 
One such study, published last year by Dr. Jo Handelsman and Corrinne Moss-Racusin, found direct gender bias in American faculty members in three scientific fields—physics, chemistry and biology—at six major research institutions across the country. Each professor was given identical resumes to rate in terms of competence, hireability, likeability, and willingness to mentor the student, with the only difference being that one applicant was named John, and the other named Jennifer. When the results were collected, John was rated an average of half a point higher than Jennifer in all categories except "likeability." Also, John was offered an average starting salary of $30,238, while Jennifer was offered $26,508. 
 
Another study, conducted by the American Mathematical Society to track standout performers in various international competitions, found that American competitors were almost always the children of immigrants, and very rarely female. Moreover, according to the study's authors, "gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers."

 

Immediately, my mind flashed to the apropos film and television references, from Lindsay Weir attempting to hide her Mathlete past on "Freaks and Geeks" to Cady Heron heeding the advice of her new friend Damien in "Mean Girls," who blurts, "You can't join Mathletes; it's social suicide." Still, Lindsay and Cady's quests to become "cool" ultimately result in newfound appreciation of their gifts, perhaps prompting other young women watching them to realize their "limit does not exist!" as well. We all have Tina Fey to thank for that line. 

 
However, the main characters on the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" tend to serve a more unfavorable purpose: reinforcing stereotypes of male and female nerds in popular culture, while also keeping the gender divides firmly drawn. For example, the character of Amy (played by the lovely and talented Mayim Bialik, who also happens to hold a Ph.D. in neuroscience in real life) is a dowdy, socially inept spinster-turned mate for theoretical physicist Sheldon. Bernadette, the other female scientist on the show, has a comically high-pitched voice and doesn't contribute much outside of playing the love interest to mechanical engineer Howard. The other male leads, Leonard and Raj, are respected physicists who also cater to stereotypes as socially awkward man-children, while the beautiful, science-illiterate neighbor Penny serves as the bubbly object of adoration for both sexes.
 
Of course, "Big Bang" has its cute and funny moments; but, as Pollack also suggests in her article, what "remotely normal" person would choose to be an Amy when she could be a Penny? Furthermore, what other cultural biases factor into the current acceptance (or lack thereof) of women in these fields; and, as a result, potentially discourage would-be female engineers or astrophysicists from continuing their studies? How many brilliant young minds do we leave untapped, Will Hunting-style, when science and math teachers fail to provide female students with the same opportunities and encouragement given to male peers?
 

To gain new insight into these questions and more, I asked four women involved in STEM fields to share their thoughts and personal experiences in bridging the gender gap. 

Veronica I. Arreola, Director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender's Women in Science and Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

On gender bias: "The literature clearly shows a bias against women, by both men and women, in STEM.  As for how it plays out in the classroom...it plays out in different ways. We have seen women delegated to secretary positions, men doing the actual experiments. Men often yell out answers, women raise their hands and wait to be called on. There are ways to minimize these examples, but it takes additional work. The tough thing about bias is that we often feel like we don't have them, so we don't work to minimize them. But we're all biased."

On the lack of women pursuing higher math and science degrees: "There are many theories. The one I focus on is awareness of the different careers in STEM. For example, I work with a lot of pre-med students, who might be better suited as researchers versus clinicians. Our society does not do a great job at exposing young people, boys or girls, to the wide range of careers available. When students are debating leaving, I often hear, 'I want to work with people.' Which is exactly what scientists and engineers do — they work with people to solve problems for people. From climate change to curing cancer, it's all teamwork. I also hear that there aren't enough jobs. For some fields, it may be true, but tech companies and banks cannot hire enough computer scientists fast enough, yet fewer men and women go into computer science. Lastly, the family-work juggle does get mentioned. For some reason, science and engineering does not come across as family-friendly. I remind students that until we have a national child care system and paid family leave, few careers are truly family-friendly. Plus, the women in academia do have much more control over their hours than women in almost any other field."

Colleen, Northwestern University graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and a minor in Earth and Planetary Sciences. 

On studying physics at Northwestern: "The majority of my peers were male, and I'm sure I wanted to stand out and prove to everyone that I was capable and that I could do physics just like them. But when I joined a lab, it felt like everyone knew more than I did, and everyone who was working on a research project had brilliant ideas right away. By not meeting those standards from the start, I saw myself as being behind; but the truth is, there was far more collaboration and discussion than I realized. I could have been asking for help, but to me that felt like admitting I wasn't good enough to contend with the 'big boys' in the lab... I eventually decided that pursuing a Ph.D. was not for me. In talking with other female graduates of STEM fields, it sounded like I was not the only person who felt lonely working through her degree. I think if I had figured out the keys of positive collaboration and had managed to boost my confidence earlier in my college career, I might have graduated with a different outlook on what a life of academia would hold for me."

On gender roles in an academic setting: "This certainly isn't true for everyone, but to me, it appears that young women are appealing to the popularized notion that they should be polite, considerate, and soft spoken rather than being loud and roaring with competitive opinions. I think something about our educated culture results in men being more willing to ask questions and find solutions without encouragement; so, it's not that they're any more capable of problem solving, men are just more visible while they're doing it. I'm sure this trend can be traced all the way back to young boys: something about young male culture makes it cool to be the "class clown," to confidently disrupt class and be loud. I did not experience a young female culture that would support or encourage those traits. If there is a confidence curve, then in my experiences, young girls are positioned to be playing catch-up from an incredibly early age."

On dating: "Outside of individuals in a traditional STEM field, I have yet to introduce myself to someone who upon learning that I earned my degree in physics didn't respond with a double-take or a 'Wow really? You must be really smart.' I'm never sure how I should respond to that, so I usually mumble a, 'Yes, maybe? I just really liked physics.' I don't know if this has ever deterred the potential pursuit of a significant other, but if the prospect of dating a physics major is intimidating to the point of deterrence, then I probably wouldn't be happy dating them anyway."

Kelsie, Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
 

On pop culture reinforcing stereotypes: "In 'The Big Bang Theory,' there is a lot of physics jargon and complicated topics that Sheldon, Leonard, and Raj talk about that I feel aren't even meant to be understood by the audience. However, I think that Amy and Bernadette's careers are presented in a much more palatable, 'dumbed-down' version and are generally less referenced. Aside from maybe one or two times, I think Amy's research topic is presented as tobacco addition in monkeys—which is a very easy-to-understand topic, unlike many of the physics topics studied by the male characters. Also, what is presented about Amy's research is often inaccurate or comical. To name a few off the top of my head, Amy having a cigarette-smoking research monkey in her apartment (which goes against so many animal research federal regulations) and eating lunch/answering her phone while dissecting a brain in lab. Aside from Bernadette being a microbiologist and doing drug development, I don't think much is ever really mentioned about her science career."

On the theory that more women are drawn to "people" sciences, like biology: "It's certainly a reasonable explanation for why more women go into biomedical and social sciences, though this isn't really my specific reasoning. To me, the difference is working with something that feels concrete and tangible. I started at Northwestern University intending to be a chemistry major, and then switched to biology when I realized I liked working with living things that I can see or conceptualize better (meaning, cells or proteins in biology as opposed to chemical reactions with chemistry). I don't really consider my work to involve people, since I typically work on a much, much smaller scale, with a culture dish."
 

Jessica, Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering.

On gender discrimination: "I've heard from a number of women that they've been told by male professors they shouldn't be an engineer or don't belong in the field. There are also a number (very few) classmates who refused to work with female students, because they don't feel that they pull their weight. Those same men sometimes accuse their female classmates of being able to get answers or help on homework easier then men because of their looks or a damsel-in-distress act. I had one classmate who acted this way, but then would ask one of my female classmates for help." 

On misunderstandings of STEM careers: "From the research I've read, girls gravitate toward 'helping' careers (doctors, vets, teachers, nurses) and stereotypes about STEM careers don't include that. That's why you see so many women in biology—much of biology research is centered on killing disease. What people don't understand is that engineering is all about making people's lives better and math modeling (or applied math) can be used on genetics projects to help cure diseases, find the best path for emergency vehicles, etc."
 
On the power of support and encouragement: "I attended a private school where there was never any gender bias in math and the sciences. I had male and female teachers who encouraged me in my course work. I also had very supportive parents and a mother who was a biology major and eventually a computer programmer. I think that as long as a girl has support from parents and teachers, she will succeed."
 
As for positive influences in pop culture, there is some good news! Marvel is teaming up with the National Academy of Science, the Girl Scouts of America and Natalie Portman to use the upcoming release of "Thor: The Dark World" to promote female interest in careers in STEM. The project is called Thor: The Dark World Ultimate Mentor Adventure, and it sounds incredible. 
 
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. You can find her on FacebookTwitter and Tumblr.