Fighting Sexism in STEM: an Uphill Battle

Teachers recall trying times from their past to treat persistent diversity problem

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Walking through the halls during the first few weeks of 2020, our school faculty reflects a problematic discrepancy. While women are 52.3% of MN’s teachers, they are only 30% of our science teachers, and even worse, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) department heads are exclusively male. 

MPS upholds non-discrimation policy 4001.1 that “The District does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis of…gender”, and according to Principal Brian Begley, “There are more male candidates who apply for science and math positions. Conversely, there are typically more female candidates who apply for humanities positions.”

Still, the origin of this imbalance raises questions as to the reason behind limited female interest in STEM positions. 

With male enrollment surpassing that of females in various STEM classes, this disparity is also evident in our student body. There are 59 males in AP and IB physics classes, yet only 43 females; and in AP computer science classes, there are 27 males, more than three times as many as the 8 female students. 

As worrisome as these statistics are, they are not surprising. In fact, chemistry teacher Leah Zohner has seen first-hand how the future proves alarming for female students in advanced STEM fields. 

“The higher you go, you start to see a little more discrepancy. In college, I graduated with 15 other chemistry majors; I think five of us were women,” Zohner said. “In my graduate work, I was the only female out of 14.” 

A 2018 Stanford paper recently attempted to explain this gap and why “females are substantially less likely to graduate with a STEM major than males”, despite reports of women “studying substantially more than men”. 

The researchers found that for female students who are “more risk averse or pessimistic about attrition probability compared to their male counterparts”, STEM classes, which are notoriously graded more harshly, may deter female students who interpret poor grades as an attack on their self-worth more than male students. 

“Some of my college classes I got pretty rough grades in…and I really had to work through that and convince myself that I did belong there, that there was a place for me,” physics and chemistry teacher Sharon Eblen said. 

In at least one MN STEM community, the presence of girls is notable, and according to physics teacher and Science Olympiad coach Philip Manley, “We’re really split about half and half these days.” In fact, junior Ananya Sivashanker finds female teammates supported. 

“There’s the whole idea of teamwork, no matter who’s on your team. I think that having girls on our team really helps to push that really positive culture out and show that no matter who you are, you can do anything,” Sivashanker said. 

With the cultural structures in place today, female students will not automatically rise to the levels of male STEM enrollment without fear of prejudice. Instead, conscious efforts must be made to not only attract girls into underrepresented fields, but also support them once they are there. 

“There is some research out there that says that if we simply talk about there being a gap and mention this with students, it produces a greater interest in females in these fields,” Manley said. 

Engagement can perhaps best be achieved with representation, as a female role model can act as one of the most powerful forces of strength for girls. 

“There’s that whole ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ phrase. I hope that female students that see me teaching a physics class might be a little more comfortable or inclined to attempt a harder class,” Eblen said.

Improved representation can perhaps explain the equal, and sometimes even higher female enrollment in areas other than physics and computer science. AP Calculus AB classes are unevenly split with 79 females and 67 males, not to mention the gap in AP and IB Biology classes, which reveals 84 females and 38 males enrolled. 

Looking around, the historically limited presence of girls in particular STEM fields still proves an issue in 2020. Still, generations above us are working as role models and mentors so that our generation might move through the new decade free from an issue of the past.