6 Things That Keep Women Out of STEM Subjects – And How to Keep Them From Affecting Your Studies

When we think about the problems keeping women from studying STEM subjects (science, technology, economics and mathematics) and pursuing STEM careers, we might think of stereotypes like ancient professors who refuse to believe that girls can do maths, or employers asking if their husband is happy with the idea of them becoming an engineer.
And it is unfortunately true that some overt discrimination against women and minorities does still occur in STEM teaching and careers. All the same, the causes of low female participation in STEM go far beyond this sort of moustache-twirling villainy, to the extent that some people, seeing no signs of obvious discrimination, have concluded that perhaps women just don’t like STEM subjects as much as men do. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
What’s more, the lack of women in STEM represents a genuine problem (much as the lack of men in primary school teaching does). A report from the Women’s Business Council revealed that if the UK could equalise the gender split in the labour force, GDP would be increased by 10% within 20 years. When you think about it, this is unsurprising: since it’s probably not the case that all the best people for STEM jobs are men, a lack of women suggests that universities and companies are missing out on a significant number of their best potential applicants – with a resulting impact on productivity.
If you’re a female secondary school student thinking of pursuing studies or a career in STEM, you might be wondering what obstacles might keep other women out of STEM. Here’s our rundown – and how you can avoid these problems affecting your own studies or career.
 

1. Lack of access to good career information

A sign that reads "College and Career Information Centre."
A career adviser is your first step.

 
MPs disproportionately come from political families. Lawyers often have children who become lawyers. Business people have children who found businesses in turn. Some of this may be pure nepotism, but not all of it; it’s much easier to succeed in a career if you have a good source of information about how to do that (such as learning from parents who are already in that career). Women may not choose STEM subjects – and, by extension, careers – simply because they don’t have enough information about what those subjects and careers involve, or available role models to ask.
Yes, the information is usually available if you seek it out, but that’s not much use if nothing has ever prompted you to look for it in the first place. For example, computing programming requires logic and problem-solving, but it also incorporates communication skills and teamwork. A young woman who enjoys logic but doesn’t know any better than the stereotype of the lone programmer in a basement might well feel that learning to code is not for her, even if it’s actually a career she would thrive in – a problem that’s exacerbated for women from disadvantaged backgrounds.
If you’re reading this article, regardless of your gender, you’re already taking a step towards finding out more about STEM subjects and careers, and considering whether they might be right for you. Keep on going with that research independently, and if you have further questions about a particular subject or career, send a few polite emails to people in those fields to ask if they can advise you. Beyond that, your school might have a work experience programme where you could shadow someone in the career you’re interested in, or you could arrange something similar on your own during the school holidays.
 

2. Imposter syndrome

A rabbit and a kitten with very similar colouring.
“One of you is the imposter…but which one?”

 
The author Neil Gaiman tells the story of being at a gathering of remarkable people and feeling that “didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things”. But then one of the people there who he was speaking to pointed to the hall of people and said, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
Where he was sent was the Moon – the man in question was Neil Armstrong.
This is a textbook example of imposter syndrome: the feeling that you are an imposter in your class or career; that everyone else is much more talented and capable than you, and at some point they’re going to find you out and expose you as the fraud you are. Imposter syndrome can be hugely demoralising, and it’s all the more challenging when you do stand out in some way – such as being one of only a few women in a subject or career that’s dominated by men.
The lack of self esteem that contributes to imposter syndrome also causes women to struggle in STEM in other ways. If you don’t think you’re good enough, you won’t put yourself up for promotions or awards, or volunteer for difficult tasks that you could learn from. Imposter syndrome encourages us to stay quiet and not be noticed, but that’s no way to advance in any field. If you’re prone to imposter syndrome, it’s worth finding a trusted friend, peer, teacher or – in future – a colleague, and asking them for some quiet reassurance that you really are accomplished and deserving of respect. If that’s not an option, ask yourself before making any decisions what you would advise a talented friend to do in your place – and then follow your own advice.
 

3. Unconscious bias

A girl in a pink top holds a teddy while two boys fight behind her.
Unconscious bias is pervasive, and can affect everything you see.

 
While it’s the case that most (though sadly not all) overt discrimination has disappeared from STEM fields, unconscious bias sadly continues. It’s the bias of people – both men and women – who, when asked, would insist that they are fully committed to gender equality in the classroom and the workplace. But unfortunately, we still live in a society that encourages us to view men and women in stereotypical, gendered ways.
Unconscious bias expresses itself in all sorts of ways in a STEM context. It can be the assumption in a lab that the oldest man must be the person in charge, and that women work in the supporting roles. It’s a split-second moment of surprise if the top three or four students in a class turn out to be girls. It’s looking around a classroom, seeing ten girls and twenty boys, and thinking that the class is roughly gender balanced. It’s calling on those boys to speak more often, and praising their answers more when they do. It’s taking longer to approve papers written by women, and rating them lower than the exact same paper with a male name attached. All of these unfortunately still happen in many settings, including STEM.
The problem with tackling unconscious bias (whether it’s about gender or anything else) is that it is unconscious; you might feel like you would never do any of the above things yourself, but you might well still express unconscious bias in other ways. And while many workplaces have adopted unconscious bias training to try and help people avoid these patterns of thought, there’s evidence that this kind of training can make things worse, not better. There’s not much that you can do to stop the unconscious bias of others from tripping you up, whether that’s in the form of teachers and professors grading you more harshly or assuming that you won’t be interested in career-boosting opportunities, or employers who think that you just don’t seem to fit in their organisation and they can’t put their finger on why. What you can do is remind yourself that it’s not you, it’s them, and do your best to power through and achieve all the same.
 

4. Being pushed into “soft skills” areas

A female soldier kneels between two small girls.
It may be assumed you’ll be better at “softer”roles, despite evidence to the contrary.

 
One outcome of bias – unconscious or otherwise – is the association of women and girls with “soft skills”. In particular, women and girls are often believed to be naturally more talented than men in areas like HR, communication, managing collaborations and customer service, compared with the “hard skills” that are more typically associated with STEM fields. But STEM fields also can’t get by without soft skills; we noted above that computer programming requires soft skills like communication, but there are plenty of other examples across different fields within STEM.
The consequence is that fellow students and future colleagues might assume that you would prefer to be involved with the Christmas party planning committee than the high-level strategy meeting; that you should be the one sweet-talking prospective customers while they do the technical work behind closed doors; or that you should take time out of your day to chat gently to a student whose behaviour needs to change, because you’ll naturally be able to do a better and more sensitive job.
And if all that is true, and you do really love the soft skills aspects of STEM, then that’s fantastic (though watch out for the pitfall that careers that include a significant soft skills component tend not to be paid as well as the ones that are purely technical). But if you like STEM because you prefer formulae to people-pleasing, then it’s good to make that clear to people before they try to pigeonhole you along stereotypical lines.
 

5. Stereotype threat

Four female runners wearing pink stand at the front of a crowd.
“Why are we so anxious? Oh yes, it’s all the pink.”

 
Stereotype threat is a particularly unfair-seeming phenomenon in social psychology. It goes something like this basic example: you’re aware of a stereotype (e.g. “girls are bad at maths”), whether or not you believe it. Being aware of that stereotype makes you anxious about conforming to it (e.g. you’re especially worried about doing badly in your maths test). And that anxiety makes your performance worse (e.g. because you’re half-concentrating on the test, and half-dealing with extra anxiety caused by the stereotype). Though the extent of stereotype threat has been disputed, it describes a situation that will feel familiar to many people in negatively stereotyped groups. The inverse is stereotype boost, where performance is increased thanks to positive stereotypes.
One of the particularly unfair things about stereotype threat is that the more you think about stereotypes and discrimination, the more it’s likely to affect you – so trying to deal with the other issues on this list can make stereotype threat worse. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to overcome it. Trying not to put too much emphasis on a particular identity can help (so instead of “I am a woman studying a STEM subject”, try “I am a physics student who’s a keen fell-runner”) – or you might even be able to identify more with an aspect of your identity that gives you a stereotype boost. If that doesn’t work, try finding positive role models whose identity matches your own and letting yourself be inspired by their successes. Anti-anxiety strategies can also help.
 

6. Social isolation

A woman in a lab coat uses a pipette.
Everyone else is at a party, and you’re still stuck in the lab.

 
If you read the section above and couldn’t think of positive role models in your field who match your identity, then you might also find yourself struggling with social isolation. STEM subjects and humanities subjects tend to keep very different hours at university, and if most of your female friends are in humanities while you’re in STEM, you might not find yourself with as much time to spend with them in future.
Being one of only a handful of women in a class or workplace can be isolating too, especially if there’s the assumption that the women will socialise together and you don’t necessarily have much in common beyond your gender. And there’s the distinct possibility that in some smaller classes, you might be the only woman – under which circumstances it can take additional effort to ensure that your classmates don’t inadvertently exclude you from their socialising.
As all of the above suggests, being a woman studying STEM subjects and aiming to make a career in STEM can, under certain circumstances, still be dispiriting and difficult. Slowly and steadily, things are improving. All the same, having a good, supportive group of friends around you can be vital: they can make all the difference in overcoming the challenges on this list, from providing you with practical information, to reminding you of your own abilities if you end up doubting yourself, to giving you the support you’ll need if you do encounter one of those rare pockets of overt discrimination that do still exist. But with enough determination and the right support network, it can all be overcome. Good luck!
 
Images: woman in dungarees working; woman stuck in the lab; female athletes in pinkfemale soldier kneels between two girls; girl with teddy and boys fighting; college career advisor sign; cat pretending to be rabbit;