The bizarre psychological phenomenon behind fewer women working in STEM

As a society, we must put forth the maximum amount of effort to break down the harmful gender stereotype that women cannot thrive in “brilliance oriented” STEM career paths.

Hiring practices must be unbiased and completely merit-based if the end goal is to pick the best and brightest to fill such challenging roles. If two candidates have the same skill set to fulfill the duties of the job then why should it matter if you hire a man or woman in this case?

Implicit and explicit biases play a large role in the reason why only 28% of women get hired for coveted positions in STEM fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology breaks down societal biases and how we can restructure them for more equitable opportunities in the workforce for the future in the following brief.

Implicit vs Explicit bias

We are conditioned from a young age to associate certain traits as inherently masculine or feminine. Females are usually considered caregiving types with sensitive approaches to emotions and mindful solutions to problems while males are regaled for their stoic, serious demeanor removed from the emotional response to make their way as a “real man” in the world.

Attributing such traits to gender expression alone has been linked to poor sleep and unchecked health problems in men worldwide since rest and self-care inclinations are considered “girly” or “emasculating” according to recent research.

Unfortunately, the following biases also bleed into hiring practices. The authors of this study highlight the issues that come along with both implicit and explicit biases in regard to equitable hiring practices.

“When people observe unequal gender distributions in fields that emphasize brilliance, they may (incorrectly) infer that these distributions reflect the inherent qualities of men and women. More men than women occupy prominent positions in fields that are perceived to require brilliance—such as mathematics, physics, and philosophy—both currently (e.g., faculty at top institutions) and historically (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Plato, Aristotle). When exposed to these gender-imbalanced distributions, people may infer that men are simply better suited for careers that require intellectual firepower.”

The psychological study

The authors of this study decided to ask participants to adhere to an IAT test. Implicit Association Tests were introduced to the field of psychology back in 1998 by a group of scientists at the University of Washington. You can find out more about the history of this controversial subliminal “bias informing” experimental process here. Here’s a sample of an IAT test so you can get a rough idea of how they go about finding results.

In this recent study, scientists asked 3,618 participants across 5 different studies in 78 different countries honest feedback when confronted with 17 different IAT tests. The IAT test highlighted 6 distinct personality traits and participants were asked point-blank whether they associated this trait more so with men or women. When we broke down the results apparently 5 out of 6 traits associated with brilliance were favored more towards men than women.

For example, in a test like this, the scientists would ask you, the participant, who would you trust more to help you ace that calculus test? On the left, you’re shown a picture of a man while on the right is a photo of a woman. Turns out that 5 out of 6 people chose the picture to the left proving the male-brilliance gender stereotype is alive and well. The participants in this study were from a variety of folks differing in age, sex, and location to determine how far-reaching these sexist biases can be in practice.

There are plenty of brilliant female mathematicians so what can we do to curb this career-limiting bias that women don’t have what it takes to succeed in STEM careers?

Dismantle the gender binary

This study showed no explicit stereotypes surrounding the idea that men occupy more positions in scientific or mathematical fields because they’re more brilliant than women. Sexism is considered socially unacceptable in more public displays of discriminatory practices but this does not mean it’s disappeared completely.

Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame explains her frustrations with the public’s understanding of what it’s like to be a woman succeeding in any male-dominated field like music and television in a quote from her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

“A certain kind of exhaustion sets in from having to constantly explain and justify one’s existence or participation in an artistic or creative realm. What a privilege it must be to never have to answer the question “How does it feel to be a woman playing music?” or “Why did you choose to be in an all-female band?” The people who get there early have to work the hardest.”

We can help curb implicit biases by instilling in both boys and girls growing up that they are capable of doing anything they set their minds to. Giving them the tools and momentum to go for their dreams no matter how masculine or feminine the job may have been considered in the past it’s best to be supportive of them in their chosen endeavors. Be your child’s ultimate cheerleader so you don’t deter your son from becoming a brilliant makeup up artist. Try encouraging your daughter to learn coding and software engineering skills and she could easily become the next CEO for Google.

The authors of this study seem to agree by adding the following.

“Exposing children to beliefs and behaviors that are gender-neutral or that invoke counterstereotypical models would also be crucial to reduce widespread gender-brilliance stereotypes in future generations. The earlier children start associating brilliance with males, the earlier girls’ aspirations may veer away (or be pushed away) from careers that they perceive to rely on this trait.”