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There has been as much written about the gender gap in STEM as there has been effort  to counteract it. But the often-desired goal of “equality”—an approximately equal ratio of males to females in STEM fields—can backfire if we become too solely focused on test results, statistics, and data.

Obstacles to gender equality in STEM are comprised of two main aspects: barriers of entry to girls who want to explore STEM, and pressures that cause women already interested in STEM to drop out of these fields. While initiatives to increase the number of women in STEM aren’t perfect, the mere existence of these initiatives is already a step forward. My experiences are hardly representative of all females (and even within STEM, most of my experiences are math-related), but I hope that these reflections will shed some light on ways to restructure initiatives to keep women excited about STEM.

Getting Personal with Outreach

The most common way to introduce a group of people to a field in which they are a minority is to connect them with others who have walked similar paths. One way many on-campus and off-campus organizations do this is by inviting speakers to present on a special topic or relate her journey to the audience. My first experience with a STEM speaker presentation was a math talk at a middle school summer program. Quite frankly, I don’t remember who the speaker was or the topic of the presentation; I snuck out of the auditorium 20 minutes into the presentation to run to 7-Eleven and grab slushies with friends. Seventh-grade me felt that the talk was simply too impersonal, as most technical talks tend to be. And this is coming from someone who was already interested in STEM; how could such a talk have piqued the interests of a young girl who wasn’t inclined towards science and math?

Girls these days are constantly bombarded with STEM talks given by female scientists and mathematicians. But those talks are usually only directed towards girls who have already expressed interest in the field, rather than those who haven’t. To increase interest among females who haven’t yet explored STEM, the talks should tone down the technical aspects and err on the side of being more personal. When I was first beginning to realize my interests in math and science in middle school, I was much more drawn towards people who talked about what it felt like to work in a wet lab, build spacecrafts for NASA, or spend months on a ship researching krill in the Antarctic, than those who discussed the technical details required of those things. Getting personal is key to inciting curiosity, and in fields where females are lacking, this is crucial to promote interest.

The same tactic can benefit young males as well. Female speaker presentations to an all-female audience can be effective and empowering, but they can be even more so to a mixed audience, especially when the speaker addresses personal struggles or interesting observations that she has noticed during her time in the field. What has been your experience with the gender divide? Do you have any advice for the audience or anyone looking to help with the movement? What is one thing you wish you could change about how females are viewed in your field? These are questions that everyone should be aware of, so that those who want to be more involved in the conversation—including men—can do just that. “If the other members who make up the STEM community are willing to be active bystanders and are educated about helpful, effective actions, women can focus on their work in STEM, instead of having to fight for a seat at the table,” Harvard student Grace Lin told the HPR.

The Pink Group

Camps and workshops that actively encourage young women to explore STEM are another common initiative toward gender equality in STEM. Some of these initiatives are single-gender programs for the purpose of building communities for women. Others are programs that attempt to address the gender gap in STEM by lowering the acceptance standards for females. Though the mission behind this latter group of programs is admirable, the lack of transparency regarding non-uniform acceptance standards can have an adverse effect on women’s self-confidence.

The camp of slushie-escapade fame was one that I had received a scholarship to attend via another math competition, as did another male student (the scholarship was meant for one male and one female). Although I was excited to receive the scholarship, I knew he had placed in the top 12 of the competition whereas I had placed around fiftieth; seven years later, it still makes me slightly uncomfortable to know that we hadn’t received the scholarship on equal footing. In high school, I was invited to the more intensive Math Olympiad Program as one of the top 50 scorers of another math contest. But MOP invited the eight highest-scoring females as well, regardless of whether or not they scored in the top 50. The camp was grouped into color groups by score, and the girls who hadn’t scored in the top 50 but who were still invited by being one of the top eight female scores were dubbed the “pink” group. Although the nickname started as a joke and stuck for convenience, I could never really get over its somewhat pejorative nature.

On balance, I support initiatives like “pink” MOP. They help break ceilings that would otherwise remain unbroken at the highest levels and give the females involved opportunities to challenge themselves in ways they might not be able to otherwise. But I do believe there are some things that should be changed, or at least addressed.

Some females may begin to interpret the existence of lower cutoff programs as an indication that females are naturally weaker. Or, along a similar vein, these programs may cause females themselves to view their accomplishments through the lens of their sex. After participating in so many contests and programs with gender-based admission, I identified as a “strong female in math” when in fact, my evaluation of my personal strengths should have had nothing to do with gender. I believe that programs which admit females under a lower cutoff should address why they choose to do this. This transparency could provide a definitive answer to the “did I get in just because I’m female?” question (even if the answer is “yes”), raise awareness about the barriers that women face in STEM, and reassure women that they belong in the program.

Fixing the Culture

The problem that most strongly contributes to the gender divide is also most difficult to correct. STEM is a meritocracy which subliminally permeates a culture of “intellectual elitism”where those who are knowledgeable and established are praised and admired, while newcomers are less welcome and struggle to “break in.” Hiro Tanaka, a post-doc in Harvard’s math department, told the HPR that the clearest example of this elitism at Harvard is the emphasis on the level of difficulty of the classes you take.  It starts, according to Tanaka, “even before the first day of classes freshman year, when you are bombarded with the cultural archetypes of what 55-ers are, or with how you should identify your mathematical ability by 25, 23, or otherwise.”

There is also a bias against those who speak up during class and ask for help, especially in theory-based fields like math and physics, as if asking questions was a sign of weakness. The stigma against “speaking up” is slowly disappearing but is still present in many upper-level classesto sit and nod in silence is to give off the impression that you understand or at least respect those who do enough to avoid slowing them down. What’s worse is when this impression of “weakness” becomes a label. Elba Alonso-Monsalve, co-president of Gender Inclusivity in Mathematics, told the HPR that she found it “unsettling to think that each time I raise my hand to get a clarification somebody might see that as a weakness expected of my gender.” This fact alone starts a vicious cycle for females trying to enter these fields: the tendency towards remaining silent when it would be best to ask questions hurts those who would benefit the most from that extra help or clarification, including newcomers.

The math department is by no means ignoring the issues that are present—in fact, the department has taken some steps to combat intellectual elitism. “Math Night,” an event on Mondays at 8 p.m. in Leverett Dining Hall, is an event where students congregate to do problem sets with friends and receive help at office hours. Additionally, the department works with GIIM to improve math advising for freshmen and prospective math concentrators. But STEM departments are going to have to do more to change the culture simply due to the way their fields are viewed.

I’m still optimistic about the progress that’s being made. Many issues remain that I haven’t addressed here, such as the pressure that women face to balance their careers and families. But attempts towards more personal programs, explicit acknowledgement of measures being taken, and a correction of the stigmas inherent to STEM culture will all result in better support for women who are seeking to enter the STEM fields as well as those who are working to gain a stronger foothold in the STEM community.

Correction, September 24th, 2017:

A previous version of this piece misidentified Elba Alonso-Monsalve as Elba Monsalvo.

Image Credit: Celine Liang

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