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Why do women go into STEM?

As young girls and teenagers, we are told that we can be anything we want, achieve anything we want; but what good is the encouragement when women make up only 28% of the employment in science, technology, engineering, and math/medicine (STEM) career paths?

With a new generation of young women, the amount of teenagers and women deciding to choose careers in ‘STEM’ has increased by 4% since 2019, and it is estimated that the number of women in ‘STEM’ will reach over 30% by 2030! Although this statistic seems promising, it’s not the type of data a young girl could look at and think “Wow, I really have a chance at this!”

With this comes the big question, why? Why are the percentages so low when we are told from a young age that men have the same chances as women? The answer is simple, its unconscious gender bias originating from the ability to enable quick assessments of individuals according to gender stereotypes.

The unconscious bias comes from the naivety of an individual’s desire to stay at the top of the workplace hierarchy. Winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize, Francoise Barre, said that “Certain people – men, of course – discouraged me, saying science was not a good career for women and that pushed me even more to persevere” which proves that men feel as if they are competing with women instead of viewing them as their equals.

The gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest growing and highest paid ‘jobs of the future’, for example; computer science with 25% of women, engineering with 16% and consultants with a shockingly low 12% being women according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics! Young girls and women choosing to enter STEM careers have very few role models to cater to their interests in these certain fields and to see such limited examples of women in STEM (unless you count the women from Grey’s Anatomy!), but having so few in books, in media and people’s regular everyday life can be extremely discouraging! There are even fewer black and Asian female role models for these careers by earning only 15% of Bachelor’s degrees across all STEM fields, including 5% of Asian women and an acute 3% of black women!

I can name at least 5 male role models off the top of my head, whereas women in STEM role models? Only 2 come to mind straight away. Within the next decade, we are hopeful that role models for teenagers will become more apparent. The one woman that first comes to mind is Marie Curie (who you may have heard about if you watch The Big Bang Theory!) she is a Polish-French Physicist and Chemist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to ever receive two Nobel Prizes! Curie was denied the opportunity to attend the University of Warsaw in Poland since the Russian government prohibited women from attending University: she described it as “A new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.”

After Marie and her husband discovered a new element that was 400 times more radioactive than Uranium which was then added to the periodic table in 1898 as Polonium, she then discovered a new element known more currently as Radium! As a result of this, it then had a domino effect of discoveries which lead to the realisation that the atom was not a solid lump of matter (also known

as the plum pudding model) and that there was something happening inside the atom itself! For Marie’s research in ‘radiation phenomena’, she became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1903 and then awarded a second Prize in 1911. By this time, Marie Curie was world famous and she also became the director of the Curie Laboratory, known today as the Curie Institute in Paris! For women interested in the fields of chemistry and physics, Marie Curie is basically the founder of women in STEM for science she was a science rockstar! She is also an amazing representation of not giving up and taking everything life throws at you: when your own brother denies you the right to attend university, you move all the way to France and show him who’s boss!

More currently, there has been news that within the next few years, NASA will be sending their first woman to the moon, which of course brings out a lot of mixed reviews but in my opinion, it’s long overdue! 12 people have walked on the moon since 1969 and all have been men, but that’s not because women aren’t qualified. In 1960, the man who designed the insanely rigorous tests for male astronauts at NASA, decided to try those same tests on a small group of female pilots. These tests included some horrific things: extreme sensory deprivation tanks, riding weighted bicycles to exhaustion, forced hyperventilation, shooting water into their ears to see how they recovered, and that’s only to name a few. Seems like if you wanted to become an astronaut, torture was part of a package deal!

25 women took those tests and 13 of them passes, one of them being a mother of 8 children – mother power, right? The group of women that passed are known as the Mercury 13, but none of this mattered since NASA weren’t going to send them to space and as they should have, the women took it to Congress. John Glenn who was the first American to orbit the earth testified that women shouldn’t be astronauts because it “went against social order” and they “wouldn’t meet the criteria anyway”.

In order to be an astronaut at the time, you had to have graduated from a military jet test piloting school and have an engineering degree but there was only one problem, women weren’t allowed in air force training programs so even though they were all accomplished pilots (some with over 10,000 hours of flying time), they didn’t qualify to be astronauts. As if those tests weren’t insufferable enough! However, John Glenn himself did not meet this criterion but still qualified, looks like it wasn’t going against social order after all.

It wasn’t until 18 years after the last moon landing that a woman was finally sent to the moon, Wally Funk, a previous member of the Mercury 13 was sent to space with the organisation Blue Origin (and with Jeff Bezos!) just last year and became not only the first woman to ever step foot on the moon but also the oldest person, at the age of 82, to be sent to space! I guess all that hard work paid off in the end!

Being a woman in STEM isn’t about the science or the technology behind everything, or about proving a point, it’s about becoming an inspiration to the younger female generation and creating opportunities for the women of this generation that wouldn’t have been accessible before! It’s a new era for women and its time to close the gender gap, end the competition and abolish the workplace hierarchy; women are just as intelligent and just as capable as men and the world needs more female role models, without struggle.

Izzi M - Year 11


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