Women have achieved huge accomplishments in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) throughout history. They have contributed to the STEM industry more than we realize, from contributing to human understanding of DNA to discovering radium. Accomplished women scientists and leaders such as Sally Ride have made huge strides for women in the science fields.
In 1983, Ride was the first US woman in space. Her space shuttle mission showed women that they could break barriers and excel in science-related fields. Ride also opened doors for more young girls to pursue STEM with confidence and helped unlock the brilliance of a generation of women. Lisa Jackson, the previous head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, is another female high achiever in STEM. Despite countless achievements made by women in this field, they are still widely underrepresented.
Gender Inequality Persists in STEM
It wasn’t long ago that women were denied the opportunities we are able to enjoy today in STEM fields. Previous studies showed that it was common to see job listings for positions like engineers or college science professors that read, “Women need not apply,” up through the 1960s. Certain professions were viewed as “manly” and therefore not suitable for women. Up until now, achieving equal opportunities for women in the STEM workforce is extremely challenging.
Aside from mastering difficult subjects and techniques of experimentation, women also have to overcome the bias against our participation in the STEM disciplines. While the proportion of women researchers has increased, studies showed that they remain underrepresented in science. A study conducted by researchers from the University College London revealed that women constitute less than 30% of scientists across the world—a figure that varies in different regions. For instance, women make up 45% of researchers in Latin America, but only 19% in south and west Asia.
TheScientist.com, a publication dedicated to covering a wide range of topics central to the study of cell and molecular development, reported that while women comprise 57% of undergraduates in STEM fields, only 24% of STEM professors in the participating organizations are women. The study led by the New York Stem Cell Foundation’s (NYSCF) Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering revealed a steadily declining representation for women along the typical academic career path: 52% of graduate and postgraduate students; 42% of assistant professors; 34% of associate professors, and 24% of full professors.
“There is no point in encouraging more girls into science if the system is set up to exclude them. Improving gender balance in science will take institutional commitments to support women in their applications for promotion, act when there are reports of sexual harassment or bullying and make work allocation more transparent,” Imperial College London physicist Jessica Wade, who was not involved in the study, said.
The Pandemic Has Worsened Longstanding Inequality in STEM
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact several industries and fields, scientists and researchers are afraid that their works will be delayed, or worse, not push through. Among those who are affected are women. While women in STEM have survived long years of gender inequality in those fields, these are still not enough to prepare us from the gendered and racial inequalities brought by the crisis.
Experts fear that the hard-won progress for women in STEM will be collateral damage to this crisis. For instance, women are advising policymakers, designing clinical trials, coordinating field studies, and leading data collection and analysis. But many of us are not aware of these because the media are biased towards men as shown in highly visible articles from popular newspapers and media outlets. This continues to happen despite having plenty of qualified women on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response that could easily be identified by checking author lists and scientific websites.
A recent study led by Megan Frederickson, an associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto, analyzed the pandemic’s impact on research productivity in real-time. According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publish news stories written by academics and researchers, Frederickson downloaded submission data from arXiv and bioRxiv. These two preprint servers cover mainly biology, maths, physics, and computer science. She inferred the gender of preprint authors using a software package to measure gender bias in large datasets.
The findings showed that the number of male preprint authors is currently growing faster than the number of female preprint authors. This shows that women are not advancing their research as much as men during the pandemic. A major factor is the gender imbalance in caregiving and domestic labor that are notoriously slow to change. Many researchers and scientists, who are also mothers, are juggling their daily lives in balancing life and work.
Lead author Prof. Emma Johnston, Dean of Science at University of New South Wales, also said that hard-won gains for women's advancement in the STEM workforce are now at risk of a major setback due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From mid-March to mid-April 2020, there were recorded job losses of 5.6% in Australia's scientific and technical services industry. Of this, jobs decreased by 6.3% for women compared with 4.8% for men in this field.
A lot of women in STEM fields are also not being given their own voices in public discussions about the pandemic. This not only perpetuates the invisibility of women in science and leadership positions but also undermines their ability to be taken seriously as experts as well as fail to provide role models for younger women.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, Johnston said that the report confirms an urgent need for STEM employers to closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of the pandemic on jobs and careers. "The challenges are likely to be most acute for women in STEM with children under 12. The combination of juggling working from home while supervising distance learning for children has made women's well documented 'double burden' even greater again,” she said.
Misha Schubert, Science and Technology Australia CEO, stated that job insecurity was even more of a risk for women than men in the STEM workforce. "With casual and short-term contract jobs likely to be the first to go, women are at particular risk—with women in STEM one and a half times more likely to be in insecure jobs," she said.