Women in STEM events demolish discrimination


(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

By Ana Altchek | Columnist

When it comes to the major revenue-generating sources, it’s no secret that women face disadvantages in the workforce. And when it comes to STEM fields, this gender gap is even wider.

With men holding the majority of STEM-related careers, I don’t need to be a STEM major to know the struggle women face when pursuing careers in science. But I do know that the women involved want to see that percentage decrease — and they’re doing all they can to change it.

Pitt, along with many other universities, has attempted to help move women’s participation in the STEM field forward with programs like Women’s Empowerment Week, which featured events like the women’s career panel “She’s the Boss.”

These kinds of women-focused events often occur within Pitt’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, such as the recent panel featuring women speakers like Barbara Staniscia, a senior director at Bechtel Plant Machinery. Staniscia spoke about her “pyramid for success” — a mixture of academic drive and technical know-how.

While it can be easy to see STEM-focused events on campus as unnecessary or lacking the need for specific attention, they are crucial in uplifting women in STEM who lack support systems in a male-dominated field — an environment that plays host to significant discrimination.

STEM career paths are particularly challenging, but the absence of women in the field is not because women lack predisposed capability. It’s actually a variety of factors including stereotypes, gender bias and workplace discrimination.

In a Penn State study, psychologist Lynn Liben dismisses any possible cognitive difference between boys and girls. Though she says spatial thinking, a skill more prevalent in boys, is a factor in mathematical intelligence, it’s only one of many skills related to the area.

“If you look at math achievement, for example in coursework,” Liben said, “girls do as well as boys.”

Liben also affirmed stereotypes’ roles in impacting a girl’s ability to succeed in STEM careers.

“If girls think they don’t do well in a subject,” she said, “they have a diminished interest in it.”

So while there seems to be a common misconception that men excel in math and women perform better in the arts, the reality is that, though these fields may lend themselves to certain kinds of thinking that may be more prevalent in boys or girls, children of any gender can learn to develop these skills just the same.

If anything, it shows that the discrimination girls face in math and science is a real factor in diminishing their success. And it’s time for lies about women’s lack of intelligence and capabilities in STEM positions to stop inhibiting some of the best and brightest from pursuing such important work.

Women in STEM events like the one hosted by Pitt’s Society of Women Engineers in February are just what women need to squash these lies. Not only are they beneficial for young women to network and gain more opportunities that will enable them to succeed, but it gives them female role models to look up to.

Pitt News columnist Neena Hagen dismissed discrimination of women in STEM careers last week by citing a panel of women in STEM at Robert Morris University.

“If discrimination truly was a huge barrier to women trying to enter STEM fields,” she wrote, “surely most panelists would have grueling stories about their victimization at the hands of a patriarchal industry.”

Hagen used the lack of discussion about personal instances of discrimination as a basis for saying that it just doesn’t happen — but the fact that these women do not speak about harassment and bias in the workplace when sharing their success stories does not mean that discrimination does not exist.

A crucial factor of discrimination is that it’s often in-group favoritism rather than blatant bias — especially in a professional environment. If the vast majority of people working for a company are men, more men are likely to be hired than women. This may not be a conscious decision, but psychologically, it’s a fact people are drawn to others like them.

In her 2003 study, Frances Aboud, a psychologist at McGill University, showed in-group favoritism to be a very real trend, one that begins in infancy. Babies tend to express comfort and reassurance when surrounded by their own race and gender — and as they grow up, these preferences become even more exaggerated as they naturally cling to others within their race, sexual orientation, gender or even cultural background.

Because of the amount of in-group bias that occurs within STEM, women adopt the same stereotypes as well. Not only does discrimination come from the men in the field, but women begin to compete against each other as well because the opportunities are so slim. These events are crucial because women need to support women.

A 2014 study by Fortune assessed performance reviews in technological companies. The study showed that 87.9 percent of critical reviews for women contained negative feedback, while only 58.9 percent of critical reviews for men contained negative feedback. What’s worse is that the gender of the reviewer made no difference — both men and women showed significantly harsher judgement in their reviews for female employees.

With an absence of men in the field, women must support and encourage one another rather than view themselves as a rarity in the field. This is why having women come together for these kinds of women in STEM events is so important — it creates a strong female foundation that thrives on mutual success instead of competition.

Ana primarily writes about culture and social issues. Write to Ana at [email protected]