Proof that the STEM Fields are Totally Inhospitable to Women

After generations of hard-fought, hard-won progress prying open the doors of opportunity for women in the classroom, the boardroom and everywhere in between, our nation is at a tipping point in the struggle for gender equality. This historic moment, however, doesn’t mean the fight has been won. The proof of this unfinished business is all around us.

There’s growing, undeniable evidence that women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are facing an under-discussed and unacceptable gender bias. A year-long study from the independent Government Accountability Office released in December found that federal agencies are not doing their part to identify and address possible gender bias in federal research projects in the STEM fields. This research follows a study by Yale University researchers that outlined how female undergraduates are considered less qualified for employment in science fields than their male peers by both male and female science professors at universities across the United States.

This bias is often implicit and subtle, but it can have devastating impacts on careers and the research being done every day across the United States. Professors are more likely to spend time mentoring men, more likely to respond to emails from men and are more likely to call on men in class. This isn’t just perception, double blind literature review processes have been found to increase the publication rates of female scientists.

Throughout their careers, women in the STEM professions have been shown to leave the field at higher rates than their male peers. A recent New York Times op-ed by A. Hope Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, outlined the harassment that women in these programs often face, writing that STEM programs “shed women the way the trees on campus lose their leaves in the fall.” She wrote that “in the rare case when a female scientist becomes a faculty member, she finds herself invested in the very system that is doing the weeding, and soon recognizes that sexual harassment is one of the sharpest tools in the shed.”

Our country is at risk of missing out on the next great breakthrough that could help change history. We cannot afford to waste the brainpower and innovative spirit of our nation’s women.

What’s more, a study released in September found that although women now account for half of our nation’s medical school graduates, women are less likely than men to be full professors at medical schools, instead taking lesser titles like assistant professor or associate professor. They also secure fewer institutional resources for biomedical research, with women making up just 30 percent of funded investigators. Early career funding is crucial to developing a successful research program and scientific career, yet men in the biomedical fields receive an average of $889,000 in institutional startup funding. That’s more than twice the average $350,000 that women receive.

As part of a study by Yale, science professors at the top universities in the country were given identical applications and asked to evaluate each student, including on their competency and how likely they would be to hire the prospective applicants. All of the applications used in this study were fake, created to be the same except for the names. Half of the applicants were named John and the other half were named Jennifer. The result? The faculty—both male and female alike—were biased toward the male applicants.

Although women have fought for generations to try and bring an end to workplace gender bias, the latest analysis shows that it still persists today even in some of the most cutting-edge career fields. The largest study to date on this topic was released last month. It examined the largest open source software community, GitHub, and found that women’s contributions were often accepted more than men’s until their gender became identifiable. Once their gender was known, the contributions of women were then rejected more often than their male counterparts. The researchers found that “although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.”

This is not said to undercut the extraordinary progress we’ve made since the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls more than 165 years ago. Generations of struggle have given women the right to vote, the right to access safe and legal reproductive healthcare, including abortion services, and the ability to pursue the college and career of their choice. As the daughter of a blacksmith in a Kentucky coal mine and the only microbiologist in Congress, I’m proud to have helped continue the ideals of the many activists who came before me by writing legislation guaranteeing women and minorities are included in all federal health trials, co-authoring the landmark Violence Against Women Act, and steering passage of healthcare reform and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

The victories we’ve won weren’t just handed to us, women throughout history have had to reach up and take them. There is so much more work to be done to build a more perfect union where everyone has a chance to live the American dream. Not only do we have to end the bias that still runs through our society today, we also need to defend the progress we’ve made against those working to turn back the clock on issues like women’s health. To be successful, we need the next generation of activists, including millennials and those just entering the workforce, to join in this movement and help write the next chapter of our story.

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Photo courtesy of Defence Images on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Louise Slaughter (NY-25) is one of the most powerful women in Congress, a leading progressive voice in the House of Representatives, and a stalwart advocate for her neighbors in Rochester. She was named the first female chair of the powerful House Committee on Rules in 2007 and continues to serve on this committee as the highest ranking Democrat.