Women In STEM On The Challenges Of A Male-Dominated Field

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

Yesterday in an AskReddit thread, a redditor who goes by “saccheri_quad” asked, “STEM Women, what challenges have you faced due to your gender? Do you feel that your skill is challenged due to it?” Dozens of women in STEM chimed in with their stories, detailing how being a woman — and therefore a minority in many (but certainly not all) STEM fields — has impacted their lives and careers. Though many said that they have had positive experiences in STEM overall, it’s also clear that there’s work to be done to achieve real equality in STEM, both in academia and private industry.

When saccheri_quad posed her questions, she added, “I'm a pure mathematics major trying to get into academia (PhD programs). I'm a little apprehensive about it, since I've already faced challenges just in undergrad.” She’s not wrong to be concerned. In 2011, the Economics and Statistics Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) reported that women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the United States, despite the fact that they hold nearly 50 percent of U.S. jobs overall. The prevalence of women varies significantly from field to field, with women being especially scarce in engineering and computer science.

There are a lot of things that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM, but harassment and discrimination are certainly factors. For example, in a 2014 survey of more than 600 field scientists, 71 percent of women said that they had been sexually harassed while conducting field research. A new study released just last week found that conditions are even worse for women of color. In a survey of 474 astronomers, 40 percent of women of color surveyed reported feeling “unsafe in the workplace as a result of their gender or sex.” Twenty-eight percent said that they had felt unsafe at work because of their race.

In the AskReddit thread, redditors described challenges they’ve faced in STEM because of their gender, ranging from small but insidious issues like gender stereotyping to problems like harassment from peers. It’s not all bad, however: Some say they have had few problems with sexism in their careers, and many describe having had great, supportive advisors and classmates in college and grad school, as well as positive work environments. The general message of the thread seems to be that women who are interested in STEM shouldn’t let their fears keep them from pursuing STEM professions — but that being a woman in STEM comes with distinct challenges.

These are a few of the difficulties that female redditors in STEM say they’ve experienced:

1. Not everyone has the same "work style."

This redditor says that she's felt pressure to behave in ways that have traditionally been coded as "masculine."

2. People assume you're not the one in charge.

A couple of people said that women in their fields are often mistaken for administrative staff or nurses, when they are in fact engineers and doctors.

3. Unconscious bias.

As this biochem major points out, it's especially hard to deal with people's unconscious biases — because, of course, they're not even aware that they have them.

4. "You have to work harder."

A number of people said that they had to work harder than male students or coworkers to receive the same level of respect.

5. If you don't succeed, you've failed ALL WOMEN EVERYWHERE.

Some women said they felt like their male peers' perceptions of women as a whole depended on their own performance. That's a lot of pressure.

6. "Aw, that's cute."

This would drive me Up. The. Wall.

7. Sexist comments and wandering eyes.

That's just straight-up inappropriate.

8. Being treated differently at work.

These redditors' stories show that sometimes having a decent (non-sexist) supervisor makes all the difference.

9. Harassment in class.

This redditor says she'd doing her doctoral research on "gender in engineering and computer science undergraduate programs." Some of the stories she's heard in interviews show exactly why so many women eventually drop out of STEM.