Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Girls Don’t Go For STEM Careers

The Girl Scouts of Central Maryland hosting a STEM event (Image from Flickr, by RDECOM)
A new nationwide survey of 1,000 teen girls from the Girl Scout Research Institute suggests that girls are both interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers and have the confidence that they can succeed in these fields. The institute reports that nearly 75% of teen girls are already interested in STEM subjects at school, and 82% believe they're "smart enough to have a career in STEM."

Despite these numbers, only 20% of STEM jobs are filled by women, according to Good Education, which attributes this to girls’ ignorance about STEM jobs. Indeed, the report said that only 13% of girls listed STEM jobs as their top career choice, while 60% said they weren’t clear about which careers were available in those fields.

Ignorance of STEM careers is only a small part of the problem, however. Consider that well over 50% of the graduate students at UCSF medical school are women (64% in 2006), suggesting that women do want to go into STEM careers and many know exactly where to go to prepare themselves. Yet the only 45% of the postdoctoral fellowships went to women and only 40.6% of the faculty positions are held by women, suggesting that even with an awareness of STEM careers and a solid education to prepare for such a career, women are still being left behind.

This is probably due to a combination of factors, including bias. 57% of girls surveyed by the Girl Scouts Institute did recognize that sexism is a problem in STEM fields, saying they would "have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously."

However, women don’t just have to work harder to be taken seriously. They may also have to consider giving up motherhood or be willing to subcontract out much of their mothering responsibilities to nannies or other family members, something that is not always possible, particularly early in one’s career.  Academic science positions are highly competitive and often require more than 60 hours per week to write grants, do research, teach, write and publish articles and participate in university committees and bodies.

Furthermore, once a female scientist has children, she often faces physical barriers that hamper effective mothering and her own health and wellbeing. At the UCSF Parnassus Campus, for example, there are very few places where a woman can go to safely and privately pump breast milk for her child, thus discouraging breast feeding and undermining the health of her child.

In a 2002 survey of UCSF professors, only ¼ of female and 1/3 of male professors felt like their jobs permitted sufficient time for their families, while 75% of women and 60% of men said they have to work an unhealthy and unreasonable amount. Female faculty were also particularly critical of the way the university welcomed new women and felt that there were unfair limits placed on their participation in the university. Furthermore, 50% of women, compared with 10% of men, felt they had faced discrimination.

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