Gender disparities between men and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have considerably decreased, as the percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees in engineering, mathematics and the sciences have risen steadily from 1970 to 2012. However, women are still underrepresented in STEM, especially in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences.
UCLA is no exception to this trend as women made up only 23.1 percent of the undergraduate enrollment in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science in 2015. Female students are especially underrepresented in computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering.
Ann Karagozian, a professor at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UCLA was the first woman to ever get a Ph.D in mechanical engineering from Caltech in 1982. Karagozian said there was not a large fraction of female students in her field when she was an undergraduate student at UCLA (1974-1978) and a graduate student at Caltech (1978-1982).
Karagozian said she believes women are not that underrepresented in certain STEM fields such as chemical engineering and bioengineering. According to her, female students will usually study chemistry and biology relatively early in their high school career and study physics later, like in the twelfth grade.
According to Karagozian, the lack of female role models in STEM that girls can look up to will lead them to rely on the subjects they have taken in high school when choosing a college major. Since physics is the foundation of many engineering fields such as mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, female students are less likely to pursue pursue physics-intensive majors in college.
The preconceived ideas that people have about women in physics are shown in a study where male and female students were asked to rate male and female physics professors who were actually played by actors. The students tended to prefer the professors who were of the same gender, but they all rated the male professors as being more competent and knowledgeable in the subject than the female professors. This demonstrates female college students’ preconceived ideas about men being better than women in physics. This perception about women’s inferior abilities in physics can cause female students themselves to have low self-esteem and lack of confidence in STEM, out of fear that they are not as capable as their male peers.
Invisible societal biases can also prevent women from choosing STEM career paths. Smadar Naoz, a professor at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA said that when girls hit puberty they will tend to unconsciously submit to the idea of a “glass ceiling” because of the lack of role models that girls can relate to in STEM.
While discrimination against women in STEM is not as predominant as it used to be due to the increase in women in STEM at the college level, women still experience condescension from their male employers and coworkers. Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate and former professor at University College London, stated that women and men should work in separate labs because women were a distraction as they “fall in love with you.” It is alarming that such sexism still exists in our society today.
Naoz has had first-hand experience of gender-based discrimination as a woman in STEM. During her college years in Israel, Naoz had negative experiences with her male professors.
“I had at least one case where I did not receive a grade because the professor thought someone like me couldn’t do well,” she said.
She also said that on a separate occasion, a professor wanted to regrade a test that she scored 100 percent on because he did not believe that she achieved that score on her own merit.
Although not as many women face as explicit discrimination in STEM today, Naoz said that in the astrophysics department, they are very aware of unconscious biases and stereotype threats.
Stereotype threat is a phenomenon where women are aware of the negative stereotypes about themselves, and this in turn adversely affects their performance or willingness to participate.
“They still exist because we are only human and we all have them,” Naoz said.
Here at UCLA, efforts are being made to increase diversity in STEM. Naoz is part of the Physical Sciences Diversity Committee a committee that organizes workshops to increase the diversity of faculty, staff and students in the physical sciences. This is a great solution to counteract gender disparities in STEM as it creates awareness about the implicit biases and encourages participation of people of various genders, races and backgrounds.
As a woman in STEM, I have experienced male teachers underestimating my abilities. Back in high school, my mathematics teacher told me that he did not think I would get the maximum grade on the IB mathematics exam. In the end I proved him wrong as I did achieve the maximum grade.
Female students in high school should also be encouraged to take courses such as physics, calculus and computer science to open up their options for more STEM-related fields when pursuing higher education and choosing a career path. When more women become pioneers in STEM, they serve as role models to younger generations. This brings us one step closer to combatting gender disparities.