Women in STEM: Why so few and how we’re changing that

This blog was written by a guest author.

Amanda Peterson, Enlightened Digital

Over the past several years, it has become evident that the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related careers is something which needs to be addressed. Though women account for 39 percent of jobs globally, they only account for 28 percent of STEM positions, and even fewer in leadership roles at only 12.2 per cent.

It can be hard to pinpoint where this gap comes from, but there is no denying that it exists. It’s been speculated that it comes back to the traditional gender roles enforced on women from a young age which consists of a general push away from more scientific careers. According to an article by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the idea that women don’t belong in these careers starts showing up around the age of six and only progresses from there.

In the AAUW study, five-year-old boys and girls were asked whether or not they thought they could be smart, the children surveyed believed that anyone can be “really, really smart,” regardless of gender. The same study however, found that girls six and older believed boys are much more likely to be brilliant. Similarly, a recent gender-science study found that 70 per cent of people associated men with STEM careers and women with the arts.

When it comes to changing these statistics, it doesn’t always come easily. Both the Obama administration and the current Trump administration have recognized the need to close the gender gap and have put programs in place to help do just that.

Our current administration has launched two programs which are aimed at helping to get more women involved in STEM positions – the Inspire Act and the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act.

The Inspire Act is directed specifically toward NASA and letting young girls know that they are smart and capable enough to grow up to have careers in the STEM field. This act specifically directs NASA to connect these young girls with female STEM professionals like their astronauts and engineers. Through this act, we are able to reach girls at the age when their confidence in achieving  a career in a scientific field is faltering. Having female role models to look up to is a vital component of getting young girls to pursue careers in the STEM field and close this gender gap.   

The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act works with women farther along their career paths by authorizing the National Science Foundation to recruit and assist female entrepreneurs in the STEM fields. When congress found that only 26 percent of female STEM degree holders worked in in STEM careers, they addressed the issue through an amendment to the existing Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act. Now, not only are the women given the same opportunity for jobs in their degree fields, but are encouraged to extend their focus into the commercial space.

During the Obama administration, The White House Council on Women and Girls launched a campaign to urge the entertainment industry to portray more female STEM professionals. One of the most important factors in combatting this gender gap comes in the form of representation. Not only in a professional sense, as demonstrated in the previous two acts, but in cultural and entertainment representation.

Young girls put a large amount of stock in the kinds of role models they are exposed to through the entertainment industry. In making an effort to portray more women in these positions, girls are learning that not only can they pursue these STEM roles but they have females in the TV shows and movies they are watching every day. From movies like Hidden Figures and Gravity to prominent female characters in TV shows like The Fosters and Reverie, there is a search of media that is giving young girls positive influences that show them it’s okay and it’s possible to pursue a STEM career.  

The Scully Effect

By Ann Varner

One of the earliest memories I have is from when I was four years old. I would sneak out of my bedroom so I could peak around the corner in the living room and watch The X-Files as my mom was watching it. One would assume that a four year old watching The X-Files would traumatize me but instead I was fascinated. I was not too stealthy however, and eventually my mother caught me. Because I was not having nightmares over the show she gave in and let me watch it with her. Perhaps this began my love of science, alien movies, and wondering about the great unknown. After the reboot of The X-Files a few years ago, I recently discovered there was something called “The Scully Effect”. One of the two main characters of the show is Special Agent Dana Scully. Scully is an M.D. who is assigned to work with another agent on X-Files and use her knowledge to be objectively solve cases. In 1993 when the show aired, it was a revelation to have a woman who was a scientist as well as an authority figure. The show broke all the gender norms and it showed young girls that they could aspire to be in law enforcement and STEM fields.

“A reported increase in women entering law enforcement and STEM fields was attributed to the character, and named The Scully Effect. After an additional 25 years of study, the reported impact of The Scully effect can in part be understood in terms of how children and teens build their view of the world around them through media consumption” (thescientificparent.org).

Instead of watching cartoons I watched The X-Files, and as an adult I continue to enjoy the show.

Wanted: Women in Science

By Ann Varner

Every Monday a group of women and I meet for our Women in Science (WiSci) meeting. This group of diverse women have become the highlight of my Mondays. We all have different majors ranging from chemistry to political science, but that doesn’t stop us. We do many activities on campus including volunteering, hosting lunches with women in science, attending science, technology, engineering, and mathematics panel discussions, and talking about Game of Thrones and our lives in general.

If you have any interest in being a part of the UMKC campus life or just getting together with a great group of women, feel free to attend a meeting in the UMKC Women’s Center on Mondays from 2-3. It’s a common fact that the science field is dominated by males, so it’s nice to find other feminists and women to get more involved.

Contact Diamond Anderson dnahyd@mail.umkc.edu for more information.



Woman with the Pencil, Not the Pencil Skirt

By: Caroline Turner

Why do we notice women in the news for what they are wearing, and men in the news for what they are doing? Why are we more inclined to point out what a women has on than we are a man?

Source: Wiki-images

On Snapchat, pretty much daily, you will see story lines about what various female celebrities are wearing. Do women just dominate the fashion world? No. But why then is what they are wearing what makes them newsworthy? Men are rarely seen in Snapchat stories and media for what they are wearing. Rather, they are mostly mentioned for who they are with or what they are doing. So why is it that we are so focused on capturing, celebrating, and criticizing women for what they wear?

I did a Google search of “media’s focus on female fashion,” and many articles came up that illustrate why focusing on what a woman wears above all else, creates problems in the way they are perceived. The whole first page was full of articles about media coverage on female politicians and scientists. Attention for these women should focus on what they are doing in leadership and research, not on their fashion choices.  But that’s often where the attention goes and what makes the headline or story. The media never treats men this way. Part of the reason there are fewer women than men in these fields is because of this constant focus on what women are wearing, rather than what they are doing. This sends the wrong message to young girls and may discourage them from considering those careers. Focusing on a woman’s appearance devalues her professionally, and can , often to no avail.

When I changed “female” to “male,” in my Google search, what I found confirmed that this was largely a female issue. However, my searches did find that the media pays disproportionate attention to men with regard to sports and their athletic physique, which creates body image issues among young boys.  So maybe men are not being portrayed fairly in the media either; however, the specific focus that the media places on how women look and what they are wearing can be damaging to them professionally and can affect to how they see themselves and assess their own .

So why does the media focus so much on what women are wearing? How did this come to be?

The male gaze, coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 describes the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure. An object does not do anything, it is to be looked at. An object is something that we do things to or do things with, but it does not act on its own. Perhaps media outlets have become like Mulvey’s man behind camera. The male gaze through the lens of the media can objectify women and distort how we value them, and this can have dangerous effects.

As media evolves and grows, pictures become stories and videos become GIFs. These narratives that we create in order to understand ourselves and others are becoming more and more embedded into our everyday lives. As media becomes more connected to us through social media, it is important to  become vigilant in recognizing the male gaze in the media so we can rise above its influence and decide for ourselves what is truly newsworthy.

Is Google Underpaying Female Employees?

by Thea Voutiritsas

The US Labor Department accused Google of underpaying their female employees compared to males. Silicon Valley isn’t exactly known for its pay equity compliance. Tech company Oracle, data analytics Company Palantir, and Microsoft have all been sued for pay discrepancy issues.

Google has been releasing their own diversity statistics since 2014, though they don’t necessarily prove that the company is diverse. Last year, 31 percent of their workforce were women, 19 percent of tech workers were women, and only 3 percent were Latina and 2 percent were black.

Google denies the charge that there is a gender pay gap in their company, claiming on Twitter that they have “closed the gender pay gap globally, and also provide equal pay across races in the U.S., according to [Google’s] annual compensation analysis.” In response to US Labor Department’s accusation, Google claimed that their remuneration calculations are gender “blind.” Each year, they suggest an amount for every employee’s new compensation based on role, job level, job location and performance.

By Google Inc. (google.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Though Google’s systematic approach to paying employees seems blind at face value, pay equity is far more complicated than whether the salary negotiators know the employee’s gender. That fact that Google’s analysis shows no pay gap, while the US Labor Department’s showed an extreme gap proves just how difficult it is to measure the pay gap to begin with.

While Google’s efforts seem to be transparent, an important thing to note is whether both studies take into account the amount of women in high-paying positions. Just because there may be no pay discrepancy between a woman and her coworker, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a discrepancy between what it takes for a woman to get promoted versus her male counterpart. If men are moving up the chain of command faster than women, then a pay discrepancy cannot be accurately measured against her counterparts.

At the same time, the numbers of women in STEAM careers is relatively low compared to men, which may account for other aspects of the wage gap measured at Google, and all over Silicon Valley. So, while Google may be paying the women that actually do work there the same wages as their male counterparts, they may not be hiring nearly as many women as they do men. This could be due to unconscious biases, or due to a lack of women in STEAM in general.

It’s highly unlikely that Google, as a company, has explicitly decided to promote men more than women, or to pay men more than women. Rather, this may be a symptom of the more insidious was that gender biases can penetrate the workplace. It is easier to perceive men as qualified leaders and innovators because it is what many people in the US are just used to seeing. Whether employers know that they may carry these biases is another story. What we should realize here is that Google isn’t necessarily the bad guy, but the inequities they may incubate are a symptom of a larger cultural problem of inequality.

Wiki Women Edit-A-Thon: This Saturday

By Thea Voutiritsas

While K-12 female and male students, in general, perform equally well on math and science in standardized tests, studies show that the rates of science and engineering course taking for women and girls begins to curtail around the beginning of higher education.

click to enlarge

Women make up half of the total U.S. college educated workforce, but only make up about 29 percent of workers in science and engineering fields. Women are wildly underrepresented in all STEAM fields (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math).

    • 35.2% of chemists are women;
    • 11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women;
    • 33.8% of environmental engineers are women;
    • 22.7% of chemical engineers are women;
    • 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women;
    • 17.1% of industrial engineers are women;
    • 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women; and
    • 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women.

So, what can we do? Let’s talk about it. Let’s do the research. Let’s spotlight the role models. Don’t miss our Wiki Women Edit-A-Thon this Saturday in the Miller Nichols Library iX Theater, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Snacks will be provided.

Panel Discussion: Women in STEM Careers

by Thea Voutiritsas

panel-discusssion-women-in-stem-careersWomen are widely underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM fields). In 2011,  women made up about half of the workforce, while filling less than a quarter of STEM jobs. Women in STEM fields also typically earn about 14% less than their male counterparts. So how do working women cope in these male-dominated fields? How do we increase interest in STEM degrees among women?

Discuss these questions and more with us on Tuesday, Feb. 7th at 12:00 p.m. in the Miller Nichols Library, room 325 for a panel discussion featuring women in STEM careers! Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP to umkc-womens-center@umkc.edu or by calling 816-235-1638. Sponsored by the Women in STEAM program.

The Science of Safety

By Thea Voutiristsas


Photo Reference: Clancy KBH, Nelson RG, Rutherford JN, Hinde K (2014) Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault. PLoS ONE 9(7): e102172. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102172

It’s no secret that women have been outnumbered by men in STEM, and that far too often, female scientists face unwanted sexual behavior from their superiors. Such situations have stayed behind closed doors throughout the past decade and often investigations have been conducted in secret in order to protect the privacy of the parties involved, forming a culture of silence around the issue. Then in early October, Buzzfeed News broke the story of many of us have caught wind of; a Berkeley professor had been accused of violating sexual harassment policies on at least four separate occasions. The news sent ripples across the field of Astronomy, as more women came forward with similar stories.

Soon after, students Katey Alatalo and Heather Flewelling founded Astronomy Allies, aiming to create a safe zone for women, offering services from formal, confidential complaint filing to safe walks home. Members of the group also sported red buttons to make their presence known at the 2015 American Astronomical Society Conference. Attendees were able to contact allies via text, email or phone to request subtle interventions. A senior scientist at the event later commented that this was the first conference he could remember at which he received no complaints of harassment. Astronomy Allies is barely a year old, and has already made positive impacts. As their site states, the allies “are people holding beacons of light to shine in the corners [offenders] are hoping to keep dark.” Click here to read more about this movement.

Wonder Woman in STEM: Mary Barra

By Torshawna Grffin

Imag courtesy of Google Images; found through Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Google Images; found through Creative Commons

A big “congratulations” goes to Mary Barra for being General Motor’s first female CEO. Making it to the top in a male-dominated field is not the easiest thing. Mary has been with the company for 33 years. When given the promotion she said, “I’m honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed.” Mary has been with General Motors (GM) since she was 18 years old.  She attended General Motors Institute (known as Kettering University) as a co-op student (meaning that she had to find a GM unit to be her sponsor – she chose Pontiac). Mary has truly worked her way to the top through hard work and perseverance.

For me, being in the Mechanical Engineering field as a woman, it gives me hope that the car industry could one day be female-dominated.  Most people don’t understand that being a woman in a male-dominated industry is hard because not only are you competing with other women, but you are constantly proving to the men that you can be an asset to their company. I struggle with these hardships now within my classes. Because of women like Mary Barra, engineering will no longer be considered a male career. Mary Barra is truly a “WONDERful Woman”.

Wonder Woman and Microbiologist: Dr. Kelly Cowan

By Amber Charleville

In my ongoing quest to interview Wonder Women who inspire me, I knew I had to ask Dr. Kelly Cowan if she would be kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

I met Dr. Cowan in the spring of 2012 when I took her microbiology class at Miami University – Middletown, Ohio (Mum, as the locals call it). It was the first science class I’d taken in thirteen years, and I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, but it was a class I had to take on my path to nursing. I wanted to get it right!

Little did I know I’d be walking away from the experience with a love of microbiology, a deeper appreciation for science, and a feminist role model. Dr. Cowan’s passion for teaching transfers to her students and gets them invested in learning.

While I love UMKC and have met many educators I’m thrilled and excited to learn from, Miami University will always hold a special place in my science-loving heart for allowing me a chance to learn from Dr. Cowan.

Now, we keep up through Facebook and Twitter, and I’m a regular reader of her blog, Microbiology Maven, in which she speaks frankly about life as a science professor and being a woman in a STEM field.

In addition to blogging and teaching, Dr. Cowan is also the published author of several popular microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill. So it’s no joke when I say I was lucky to grab a little of her time when she answered a few questions via e-mail for me!


Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

Image found on Google Images through Creative Commons.

AC: Can you tell me a little about your background? Where you’re from, education, why you chose microbiology, etc?

KC: I’m from Kentucky.  I got all of my degrees from the University of Louisville. Then [I] did postdoctoral training at the [University] of Maryland and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  My path to microbiology was circuitous; I was a lost puppy in college being a first-generation college student.  I was at various times a math major, a psychology major, an English major, and a dental hygiene major.  At no time was I a microbiology major.

When I thought about graduate school, I was trying to decide whether to do creative writing or microbiology.  I chose microbiology figuring if I was going to write I’d better have some experience in something in order to have something to write about.

AC: You’re now a published author of a popular series of microbiology texts through McGraw-Hill, right? How did that come about and how does it feel to know you’re helping to educate not just the students in your classroom, but ones all across the country?

KC: Well, see the answer [below].  I thought, “I can do better than that,” while trying to use the existing textbooks.   Sometimes a little hubris can go a long way.  That was one of those things where it was much harder than I expected but also much more rewarding – being able to change a culture from “let’s put everything we know in this book” to “let’s decide what we want this population to remember five years from now” and meet students where they are.

AC: You have a somewhat unique approach and an infectious passion for your subject in the classroom. How long have you been teaching? And how did you “get in” to teaching?

KC: In graduate school I had some pretty arrogant and lousy professors.   It seemed like they mainly just wanted you to feel like they were smarter than you, and weren’t all that interested in whether they were communicating with you.  I thought to myself: I can do better than that.  And for that reason my favorite classes to teach are the ones with the LEAST prepared students – the 100-level students, non-majors, etc.  To teach that population you have to really know your stuff, and beyond that, be really empathic, and understand where they are and take the focus off of yourself.

AC: Recently, you’ve branched out to writing for your own website and blog, too. I enjoy reading it, but can you tell our readers a little about what sort of topics you tackle and what you like about blogging?

KC:  Well, it’s a blog about science, teaching science, and science and culture.  And the occasional Rumi poem.  Here’s a recent post that manages to tie together college football and women in science: http://www.microbiologymaven.com/miscellany/reflections-on-the-harassment-thing/

AC: You’re a working mom, too. How has that been challenging and rewarding for you? And how do you feel being a working mom differs from being a working dad?

KC:  I hope that soon there will be no difference, and I see a lot of progress towards that.  Unless you’re talking about the actual gestation and birth and recovery, there is no reason that being a working dad shouldn’t be as difficult as being a working mom!

But there is still a ways to go. For instance, in the academic world, the stage of life that you are on the tenure track, spending 5-6 years in full-out overachievement mode so that the one-time decision about whether you have a job for life will go your way – is the very same time, biologically, that you are likely to be giving birth and raising small children.

In academic fields that are male-dominated, it becomes even more difficult as your peers and competitors who are male are likely to have a partner who is managing the lion’s share of the parenting activities.   Because of long-standing gender norms, even if a female scientist has a partner, she is still more likely to be handling the bulk of the child raising.   That is changing for the current generation and it will continue to change.

AC: Recently, there have been a lot of strides to get women and girls more interested and involved in the sciences. Women are sorely needed voices in the scientific community at large. What has been your experience as a woman in science and why do you think it’s important for more women to join the (many) different fields encompassed by ‘science’?

KC:  The whole enterprise of science needs to change to accommodate not only women but the new models of “doing science” – crowd collaboration, interdisciplinary work, etc.   There are a lot of discussions going on about grants, publishing, tenure, etc and I anticipate that science in 20 years will look a lot different than it does now.   It’s sad that the revolution will come not because women have always been undervalued in it, but because the majority population (males) is itself being affected by unstoppable cultural forces.  But it is coming.

AC: Do you consider yourself a feminist, why or why not?

KC: Of course!  And for those women who are proud to say they are not, I would love to make an “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie for them and show them what they would be doing right now without the hard work of feminists before them.  Right after I make the “Wonderful Life” movie for the people who say government is bad, and show them what their “self-made” success would look like without roads, electricity, public health, and yes, taxes.


Thanks again to Dr. Cowan for making time to answer my questions. Our readers can find Dr. Cowan at her blog, www. microbiologymaven.com and on Twitter: @cowanmicro