Women in STEM: Without Female Role Models, We Risk Losing Brilliant Minds in the Field; Female STEM Professionals Are Less Visible and Paid Less Than Their Male Counterparts

By Hamburg, Margaret A.; Small, Nicole | Newsweek, May 17, 2019 | Go to article overview

Women in STEM: Without Female Role Models, We Risk Losing Brilliant Minds in the Field; Female STEM Professionals Are Less Visible and Paid Less Than Their Male Counterparts


Hamburg, Margaret A., Small, Nicole, Newsweek


Byline: Margaret A. Hamburg and Nicole Small

As viral images go, scientists couldn't have asked for a better one-two combo. On April 10, the first-ever image of a black hole and its burning ring of gas was seen around the world. Next came a different kind of caught-in-the-moment radiance--the overjoyed reaction of Katherine Bouman, whose algorithm played a role in the black hole's capture.

It was a good day for science, as well as for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

It was also, unfortunately, a rare day, with the black hole representing a troubling metaphor. That term might describe the experience of many girls who, despite their love of STEM, don't receive the same encouragement that boys do. Often called the "leaky pipeline," this problem grows during the high school years, when interest in STEM drops from 15.7 percent among freshmen girls to 12.7 percent among seniors and only gets worse in college. More than 6.7 million men in the U.S. have a degree in STEM subjects compared with 2.5 million women. By graduate school, men and women might as well be operating in separate galaxies.

The result is a world in which women constitute just 25 percent of the STEM industry, according to federal data. Female STEM professionals are less visible and paid less than their male counterparts.

One solution to the problem, both now and for the next generation, is to provide girls with STEM role models. In other words, we need more viral images like Katie Bouman's--and of Feryal Azel, Sara Issaoun, Sandra Bustamante and the dozens of other women who worked on the project. For girls, seeing someone who looks like them, as well as understanding how that woman got to where she is, buoys them with courage to chase their dreams.

It's a proven approach. According to a 2018 Microsoft survey, for example, STEM role models increase girls' interest in STEM careers from 32 percent to 52 percent.

That concept spills into pop culture, confirmed by a 2018 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which found that nearly two-thirds of women working in STEM cite X-Files protagonist Dana Scully as a personal role model who increased their confidence to excel in a male-dominated profession. (A separate 2018 Geena Davis Institute study, which surveyed the previous 10 years of popular films and TV shows, found that male STEM characters outnumber female STEM characters nearly two to one--the ratio hasn't changed in 10 years. …

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