As a woman inclined toward math and science who probably should have pursued a related career, I find myself perpetually compelled to read articles on the problem of women in STEM careers or the gender gap. However, every time I read another article I am aggravated at encountering the same dumb reasons for the problem. Today it was this article in Scientific American Mind: “Women on the Verge: The Perks of Being a Female Scientist.” Here are their “Big Three Threats” to women in STEM:
- The Math Myth
- Stereotype Threat
- Implicit Bias
Their point was that overcoming adversity and stereotypes makes people more creative thinkers, which is beneficial to women scientists. All over the internet and in gender gap research these three challenges are touted as the major players responsible for the decline in female interest in STEM as girls get older. Here is the part where I sound totally unsympathetic to the plight of women in STEM. (If what I am about to say offends you, please hang on and read the next paragraph before you write me off completely.) Boo Hoo Hoo! Let’s cry about it! Someone doesn’t believe in me! Women, come on! Getting behind all these studies that say these are the reasons we don’t enter STEM fields makes us look like weak little princesses who need to eat off silver platters and can’t handle at little adversity because we might break a nail. Now, I am willing to bet, if you are a STEM inclined girl/woman, this probably does not describe you well at all. So let’s stop letting people describe us that way. It makes me mad, how about you? We need to talk more about the real struggle – the hardest one for us to overcome. The one that really knocks us out of the ring.
For those I might have offered in the previous paragraph, here is the part where I sound more reasonable. These “big three” offenders are real, and they do have an impact on us. They make STEM careers for women and uphill battle, to be sure. We face many challenges that males do not necessarily face. For young girls, paying attention to these factors in critical. “Train up a child in the way (s)he should go, even when (s)he is old (s)he will not depart from it.” All children are like soft clay, they will take the form you give them. This can be changed once the clay is hardened, but only by smashing the piece to dust, reconstituting it, then reforming it. Or if you take the analogy of a tree, bent when it is young, it simply cannot, when it is old, be made to change course. So, yes, world, please work on making life more fair.
However, if these popular reasons are not what really keep women out of STEM fields, what is? Hold on to your seats. I am really going to shock you here. The reason there are so few women in STEM careers is because we are women? We have uteri and breasts. That means biology has decreed we are the ones designed to carry the young of our species around in our bodies, give birth, then nurse and care for them until they are weaned. This takes an extended period of time and a lot out of us. This is the strict biology of the situation; a biological imperative. That means this is what we are hard wired to do.
Now in the world of humans, what we actually do with respect to feeding, weaning and care of young children after they are born varies for as many reasons as there are women and I intend no judgment to working or formula feeding mothers by what I said above. I am simply highlighting that we are the ones most naturally equipped to raise the young of our species, and we have in innate desire to do so.
This is the one hurdle many women cannot overcome, because it is not about strength of character, it is about a heart wrenching choice between two loves. Many women choose between pursuing a career in a field they love or having children, or they must choose between investing less than 100% of their time in that career or in their children. They face the unfortunate reality of the finitude of a lifetime and no matter what choice they make, they will likely feel guilty about whichever work they have left undone and sadness over whichever love they have neglected. From the first time a girl is asked what she wants to be when she grows up she is forced to started weighing careers against motherhood and determining their compatibility and which she wants more. It is at this point the “big three” enter the ring and start throwing their weight around.
So what can be done?
For some, maybe nothing. They cannot be enticed into STEM careers. The biological imperative wins, and as mothers they will likely share their love of math and science with their children, hoping to inspire them.
For others, employers can make a difference. They can stop equating part-time with half-a$$ed. They should recognize that women bring a valuable alternative perspective to problems, and do anything they can to make hours and locations more flexible. They need to see these women as just as serious about their work as their male counterparts. Having so little time to spread around to all they love, they are more motivated to make excellent use of every second. The more employers make it possible for women to work in STEM fields and raise their children at the same time, the more you will see women go into STEM despite the ‘big three”.
Women working in these fields now and missing your kids or feeling guilty over the time you are away from them, you are the ones in the best position to fight to make your life better and open the way for girls after you.
Men with children, how many survive on pictures of your kids texted by your wife during the day? You get ready and leave for work when they get up, and come home tired when they are almost ready for bed. How much of their childhood has slipped away? How many special events have you missed because your work is not flexible? Many of you are in the best positions to advocate for family friendly, flexible work environments. Fight to give your daughters their Daddies back and pave the way for them to show the world how brilliant they are.