Women have always been in the shadows of the technical fields. Throughout history, there have been a lucky and likely deserving few who have been formally acknowledged for their work and contributions in their fields. Today, women have such a great opportunity for the education and career option in these technical fields such as physics, engineering, computer science, and of course mathematics compared to those in the past. So why is it that we still find all of these fields significantly dominated by men?
There’s always the popular myth that women just aren’t as good at math and science as men are, though this is generally just a “gentler” way of claiming women are at the biological disadvantage of not being men. Even though once upon a time there were statistics to back up this theory, this is definitely no longer the case. In fact, many believe the primary reason for the statistics in the past is under representation. Because really, if only one girl in her grade takes a math course, and does remarkably average while the boys average out to above average, all the statistics are going to show is that the female population didn’t do nearly as well as the men. More recent studies (though still going back into the 1990s) have revealed a much different pattern: that the gap between genders in math and science abilities has become a myth itself.
So why then, despite women’s increased achievement levels in these subjects, are there so few making it to careers in math and science?
From a young age, girls most often rate their own mathematic ability lower than the boys do, despite there being no evidence of this fact reflected by grades or their teachers’ reporting. This very important finding could be the biggest clue we have to why we don’t find as many girls pursuing higher education or careers in these fields: poor perceptions of their own abilities. This is such an easy problem to help prevent if teachers and parents actually take the time to give informational, detailed feedback instead of a simple “this was wrong”. This praises the effort rather than the correctness of their result, encouraging them to understand the material rather than be discouraged by an incorrect conclusion.
Another problem come to light is the psychological pressure that stereotypes can put on a woman, doing just fine in her math and science classes, to leave the fields. This perceived threat most often occurs when a woman finds herself faced with the negative stereotypes surrounding female ability in the mathematic and scientific fields, despite there being no evidence of such differences. It is a thing she hears from the time she is young, that men are “just better” in many things, and these negative ideas appear on a day to day basis for most women in the fields. Another threat stereotypes bring along is an attack on a woman’s feminine identity. Women in math and science are often stereotypically portrayed in general media as being asexual, married to their work, physically unappealing, or just not real women. And while some women are very happy to fit any number of these ideas, which is completely fine of course, there are many that are so threatened by such ideas that it impacts their decision on whether or not to pursue the field, no matter their own ability.
Then there’s always putting the representation of the entire gender on one girl’s shoulders. When one addresses a female student as being good or bad at something “for a girl”, they place the weight of upholding the reputation of all her female peers, past, present, and future, on her. There’s so much pressure on these girls not to fail, that many do not wish to even attempt. They’d rather step out of the field entirely than risk damaging such a fragile reputation.
Yes we have come a long way, and yes it’s such a wonderful improvement from how it used to be. Women do have professional and educational opportunities now that women even a few decades ago could never dream of having, and the woman that seize these opportunities and achieve so much are such inspirations to us all. So why don’t all women take advantage of the opportunity? Encouragement is a powerful determinant in anyone’s life, how can you blame so many women for falling out of the maths and sciences if they receive such an obvious lack of personal encouragement? Anyone can stand in front of a crowd and tell them women can do anything they set their mind to, but when faced one-on-one with someone who uses phrases like “you’re pretty good for a girl”, the effect is so much stronger. It’s not just the female perspective on women’s mathematical abilities that need improvement, but the male perspective as well.