Why Women Have It Worse: Explaining Gender Bias in STEM

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Graphic by Taynaya Miranda

Women in STEM fields should have the same privileges as their male counterparts because women have been known to be more resilient and intellectually capable than men. Yet women’s underrepresentation and the continued perception of women’s inferiority is pervasive in a number of STEM fields. 

But where did this ridiculous notion that men are superior to women originate from? According to anthropologist Sally Scolum, the role of women has historically been ignored by scientific studies of the human species. Most studies in human evolution have largely focused on the origins of aggressive and competitive behaviour – hunting, war and the struggle for resources. 

In her 1975 book “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,” Scolum addressed how our modern understanding of anthropology was developed mostly by white men, and the work of other anthropologists, from different backgrounds, was ignored by the field at large. Scolum also suggested that the questions these white men asked pertaining to the evolution of the human race were formed by historical events they were part of, and by uninformed assumptions about the cultural diversity of humans.  

Angela Saini, a science journalist and author of the 2017 book “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story,” explains how for years anthropologists believed that hunting activities carried out by men were what eventually led to collaboration, language and the stability of our species.

This idea was a deliberate attempt at removing women from the story of human evolution, and gives the impression that only males were evolving. However, women played an equal, if not more, important part in human evolution. 

Scolum posits that although males provided animal protein to their family through hunting, the availability of crops, produced by females, could have decreased the demand of male hunting efforts, as crops provide carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and can be used as a source of vegetable protein.

Dr. Hillard Kaplan, an anthropologist and professor at Chapman University, sheds  much needed light on the topic in his 2009 article “The evolutionary and ecological roots of human social organization.” Here he lists the fundamental necessities for the viability of a species, including the importance of the female role in human evolution, therefore, avoiding the male bias that is present in most historical documents. 

Dr. Adrianne Zihlman, an anthropologist and professor at UCSC explains, in her 2012 article “The Real Females of Evolution,” how the evolution of our species was primarily contingent on  mothers’ involvement in their infants- social, emotional and physical development. Although males contributed to the safety of the social group, they had little interaction with the young.

Fast forward to the 20th century – women are increasing their participation in the workforce and are pursuing fields that were once reserved only for men. Some of these fields include business, engineering, law and medicine. Studies have shown how women, on average, achieve higher grades and test scores than males. As of 2018, women represented 57 per cent of college graduates and graduated with higher grades and at a higher rate.

While these patterns imply that women are proficient and more than capable in terms of academic performance, these achievements don’t translate into workplace gender equality. In 2018, Canadian women on average earned $4.13 less per hour than men working in a similar field – $0.87 for every dollar earned by men, according to Statistics Canada.  

Although women today face fewer barriers to pursue STEM careers, their representation in these fields remains low. A study from Cornell University, published in 2013, showed that women who major in STEM fields are less likely than their male associates to actually work in STEM professions or remain in them following graduation, as they may have lower expectations for their future remuneration.

Another study from Cornell University, published in 2016, showed that even though women account for approximately 50 per cent of all STEM degrees earned, their working share in STEM fields is only around 20 per cent. Furthermore, women who choose to pursue careers in STEM are expected to earn around 18 per cent less in hourly wages than men working in the same field. 

While the existence of a gender wage gap has been proven by multiple studies, further research has continued in search of the root cause behind the issue. Previous studies from the mid and late 2000s had reached a variety of conclusions – from a woman’s inevitable need for maternity leave, to their perceived lack of ambition from within the workforce.

Both assumptions are bogus and misleading, with a recent study, published by the American Sociological Review in 2020, proposing that women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields derivesfrom conscious exclusion and unconscious gender biases.

Nonetheless, women should not be expected to earn lower wages than their male counterparts nor should they be denied opportunities just because they might want children of their own some day or because of sexist perceptions of inferiority. 

Increasing the presence of women in STEM occupations is the key to reducing the gap – the more women who succeed in STEM, the more women will see there exists opportunity to do so. This will also allow women to feel more comfortable pursuing STEM fields that were once thought of as exclusively male spaces. 

Women have the right to seek and succeed in any position regardless of gender. They have the right to be treated with the same respect as their male counterparts and they shouldn’t be denied equality due to bias, unconscious or otherwise, nor due to the opinions of male chauvinists.

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