Male undergrads are more likely to blame women themselves for their self-doubt in STEM fields, while female students blame gender bias
This is mansplaining, STEM edition.
The challenges women face in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are well-documented, but a new study from Dartmouth College finds that men and women put the blame in very different places stemming from their different points of view.
Male and female undergraduates were asked to read a narrative about a female student in STEM feeling anxious in class, and offer their perspectives on why she felt this self-doubt.
The women were likelier to identify factors beyond their control — namely, gender-related prejudices, negative stereotypes and unconscious bias by a professor. But the men doubted that an instructor would be biased, and instead blamed the female student’s own self-doubts, or believed that she was simply not prepared for class.
This could be because research shows that male students aren’t exposed to gender bias as much as female students. The Pew Research Center found that half of women in STEM fields had experienced gender discrimination at work, compared to just 19% of men.
What’s more, 20% of women said gender has made it harder for them to succeed (versus just 7% of men) and 36% of women say sexual harassment is a problem in their workplace (versus 28% of men).
“For women working in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) jobs, the workplace is a different, sometimes more hostile environment than the one their male coworkers experience,” the Pew Research authors write. “Compared with those in non-STEM jobs, women in STEM are more likely to say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace (50% vs. 41%).”
Joanne Vitali, 58, of Downington, Pa. — a former engineer for the Philadelphia Electric Co., astronaut trainer for NASA’s space shuttle program, and strategic planner for a software firm — has witnessed rampant gender discrimination in STEM industries for decades.
“I was one of [only] four women,” out of a cohort of 66 engineers hired at her first nuclear engineering job in Philadelphia in 1981. “When we went to the power plant, men were walking around with porn laminated to the back of their clipboards.”
Vitali remembered being asked to perform “embarrassing” tasks at work which her male colleagues would have never been subjected to, such as climbing bucket ladders on utility trucks or being asked to go fetch her boss’ sunglasses from his car while presenting a session on strategic planning to coworkers. She said that often being the only woman in a group of men made her an easy target for these requests.
What’s more, Vitali has talked to other women who say it’s happened to them too. One woman in her mid-30s confided in Vitali that in recent years, “I was literally given feedback that I needed to change my hair color from blonde, because I was not being taken seriously.”
And former pharmaceuticals executive Erin Albert of Indianapolis, In., who declined to disclose her age, said that entrenched gender stereotypes in industries like her own stand in the way of women achieving parity.
She says she was likely not selected for certain jobs because “being a successful woman was a detriment to a lot of positions I applied for. It played against me.” She adds: “When you look at the CEOs of all top pharmaceutical organizations, they’re 95% to 98% men. I think gender discrimination is… a part of it,” says Albert, who has a doctorate in pharmacology, and an MBA and law degree.
Ultimately, these women believe the culture for women in STEM is changing, but further progress will take time. “It’s a lot more covert than overt,” nowadays, Albert opined. And for her part, Vitali worries that young women are dissuaded from entering STEM for issues like these, as well as the ensuing fear of loneliness and isolation.
“The STEM culture is definitely getting better,” says Asha Kumari, 35, the director of product engineering at the office of Silicon Valley-based tech firm Pramata in Bangalore, India. But “we still have a long way to go.”
This story was originally published on Jan. 13th, 2018, and has since been updated.
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