How do we STEM the Gap?

The future of equal power, pay, and opportunities for girls and minority groups depends how we look at ourselves and others.

By Dulce Zamora

Friday, July 24, 2020 — My 10-year-old daughter’s LEGO Robotics team won the school’s Core Values Champion’s Award. The award recognizes the team that excels in the categories of inspiration, teamwork, and gracious professionalism.

As with many events, the pandemic and its corresponding circuit breaker (Singapore’s version of lockdown) interrupted the robotics season just as the teams were in the home stretch of preparing for the national competition. That did not stop my daughter Jasmine’s team from meeting online every week. Even before the teachers gave them guidance, they continued to rehearse and refine their presentation. These kids had already worked hard all season. Prior to the mandatory quarantine, they had been meeting regularly — one to three days per week — since October. They had already researched, coded robots, and designed holograms. They weren’t about to just drop everything.

Jasmine’s team was one of two all-girl teams in the grade 4 to 6 category. Most of the competitors were boys. That didn’t surprise me. However, alarm bells did ring after I researched gender differences in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and discovered that girls and women are not only underrepresented around the world, but females are also missing opportunities to earn a decent living, to become independent, and to become leaders in their companies and communities. Here’s what I found most disturbing: Despite efforts to empower women, the gender gap in pay and upward mobility is actually increasing. (Think of a crevice widening into a deep fracture.) With schools and workplaces turning to digital devices, robots, apps, and other technologies, only people who can work with technology can advance.

The opportunity and wealth divide does not stop with gender. People of color and others in already disadvantaged communities will likely straggle behind. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has laid bare the differences between the haves and have nots. In many low-income households, neighborhoods and countries, kids haven’t taken part in any academics since March, and it’s unclear when they’ll be able to return to school. Their institutions may not have the resources to provide online learning, or the students themselves don’t have equipment needed to participle in such work.

Kids without sufficient access to good education don’t usually end up in STEM careers. In the United States, about half of STEM workers cite poor academics and lack of encouragement during childhood as reasons why so few Blacks and Hispanics are in the field. Blacks make up only 9% and Hispanics represent 7% of the STEM workforce.

College-educated Asians in America hold 17% of the STEM jobs. The Pew Research Center says Asians are overrepresented relative to their overall share of the workforce, because only 10% of all college graduates are actually in STEM fields. However, this assessment can be deceiving. Asians may have good chances of being hired, but their options for advancement — where they are in positions of power– are much slimmer, especially for Asian women. (More on this later.)

Around the globe, there are many social and environmental factors that prevent more diverse involvement in STEM classes and careers. These barriers include stereotypes, biases, lack of role models, a female tendency toward lower self esteem (according to many studies), skewed work-life balance, cultural mores, and inadequate access to education, technology, jobs, and money.

The Stereotype Threat

Research shows that girls perform as well as boys in math in elementary and middle school. In high school, at first, both genders take advanced math and science classes at similar rates. As they get closer to graduation, however, females tend to take fewer high-level STEM courses compared to males. What drives girls and women away from STEM activities?

Scientists say the seeds that plant the divide begin in early childhood. They point to the role that stereotypes play. One 2016 Tufts University study of children from Kindergarten to second grade found that widely-held beliefs about gender influence young children’s interest in engineering and programming. Researchers introduced an eight-week course involving LEGO blocks and robots. Before the program started, the kids were asked what they thought about the tech gadgets. More than half of participants (64%) said boys would enjoy playing with LEGOS more than girls would. When asked why, many kids said building is an activity for boys, and that the color of the blocks in the study (mostly red, blue, and yellow) was more appealing to boys. The kids said things like, “Girl LEGOs are pink” and “The boys would build something. Girls don’t play with LEGOs.”

As for the robot in the program, about a third of participants (33%) said the robot was more interesting to boys. The children said that the toy’s blue and light wooden color made it more attractive to boys. Kids said things like “Boys like blue and things that are fast,” and “There’s no girl colors.” The robot reportedly appealed more to boys, because it looked like a car when assembled. Some kids said the robot’s beeps and other noises would probably bother girls.

Researchers used the feedback to change the look and feel of the robot. They changed the color to orange, which was deemed a neutral color. They also incorporated some arts and crafts activities in the program to make the robot look less car-like. The result: Children began to see the toy as more of something that could appeal to both sexes.

Stereotypes continue to plague people as they get older. According to the American Psychological Association, the mere mention of gender and race can affect college students’ performance in standardized tests. In one study published in 1999 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers told a group of students with similar abilities that previous test scores had shown gender gaps. They told another group that there had been no gender differences in previous exams. In the first set — where gaps were mentioned — the females did significantly worse than the males in the exam. In the second group, which did not mention gender differences, women scored equal to men. Researchers believe that the mention of gender differences triggered the long-held stereotype that women are inferior to men.

Racial stereotypes can also affect performance. In a 1995 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers told a group of black and white students that the standardized exam determined their intellectual ability. They told another group of black and white students that the exam was merely a problem-solving task, and mentioned nothing about intellect. In the first group, the set that heard about the value of intellectual ability, the black students performed worse than the white students. In the second group, where intellect was not mentioned as a factor in the test, there was no difference in the way that black student and white students performed. Researchers say the mere mention of intellect in the first group could have activated the stereotype that blacks were less intelligent than whites, even though all students shared similar abilities.

The Growing Wage Gap

Around the world, women make up only about a third of STEM workers, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. The disparity in the United States is a bit wider. According to a 2017 report by the Office of the Chief Economist, women fill almost half of all American jobs, but only 25% of college-educated females work in STEM fields. Although the proportion of women in the life and physical sciences has increased since 1990, the number of females in other science-based occupations has remained stable. What’s concerning, though, is that there are fewer women (7% less compared to the 1990s) in the field with the most growth: computer jobs. These positions include computer scientists, systems analysts, software developers, information systems managers, and programmers.

STEM jobs are the wave of the future. In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a Future of Jobs report, which included a list of the emerging and declining jobs of 2022. The emerging areas are mostly expected in the science and technology fields. The hottest positions listed are Data Analysts and Scientists, and AI and Machine Learning Specialists. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will ultimately affect these projections. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if demand for tech skills have increased further with pandemic-induced measures facilitating massive international experiments in remote employment and learning.

If more women don’t enter science and tech fields, the gender pay gap could widen, according to a report on social and demographic trends by the Pew Research Center. STEM occupations tend to offer higher wages than non-STEM ones. However, women in STEM still do encounter the gender wage gap that plague women in other industries. In 2010, the National Science Foundation analyzed the salaries of engineers, and found that women’s pay still lagged behind men’s. The median annual salary for female engineers was $75,000, which was $14,000 less than the salary of their male counterparts ($89,000).

In addition, women in STEM tend to make less than men, because many hold health care jobs, which tend to earn less compared to more lucrative sectors such as engineering and computer science.

The Minority Report

There have been some efforts to include more Latino and Black students in STEM education. Research shows that these minority groups declare STEM majors at the same rate as their white counterparts. However, Latino and Black students drop out of their majors, or leave school altogether at much higher rates than whites, reports a national study published in February 2019 issue of the journal Educational Researcher. The study did not explore the reasons why these minority groups leave STEM and college, but the researchers cited other studies:

“Past qualitative research makes a compelling case that STEM degree programs and college classrooms are purposively constructed as exclusionary spaces where students must essentially prove that they deserve to stay (Beasley 2011Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).”

Researchers also say stereotypes about intellectual inferiority affect Black and Latino student’s inner dialogue.

At first glance, another minority group does not appear to have a problematic stereotype in STEM classrooms and workplaces: Asian Americans. In fact, they have been called the model minority, because of their perceived socioeconomic success compared to other peoples of color. Yet, stereotypes, even when seemingly positive, can backfire. The high expectation of success can result in feelings of self doubt, inadequacy, psychological problems and thoughts of suicide, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The stereotype also prevents Asian Americans from getting proper treatment. When they do finally seek help, they tend to be in worse condition compared to white Americans.

Asian Americans have another issue: They are often not viewed as management material. A 2017 report by Ascend Foundation titled “The Illusion of Asian Success” found that while Asian Americans are the most likely racial group to be hired into high-tech jobs, but they are the least likely to be promoted into Silicon Valley’s management and executive levels.

“Our research found that Asian Americans, both male and female, are expected to be good team players and worker bees,” wrote Joan C. Williams, Marina Multhaup, and Rachel Korn, authors of a 2018 article in The Atlantic titled “The Problem With ‘Asians Are Good at Science’.” The authors worked with the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

Asian American women have an even bigger challenge. Compared to other subgroups such as women in general, whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asian men, they are the least likely to hold positions of power in STEM careers.

“Asian American women engineers were significantly more likely than white women—and much more likely than white men—to report the expectation that they work hard, keep their heads down, avoid confrontation, and let others take the lead,” penned Williams, Multhaup, and Korn. “This makes it difficult to get ahead as a scientist, a job that demands assertiveness, aggressive lobbying for research opportunities, and leadership of teams of people.”

Real-life Puzzles

All this research makes me wonder how stereotypes have affected me and my girls. When I was in school, first in the Philippines and then in the U.S., I consistently received good grades in math and science. In standardized exams, I always scored higher in math than in English. I won top math and science awards throughout my elementary, middle, and high school years. Yet, self-perception of my mathematical and scientific abilities was quite different. Back then, I did not see myself as a math and science person at all. In fact, I felt insecure about my performance in those subjects, and credited my success only to hard work. It was only recently that I began to reexamine my self-limiting beliefs.

Why did I doubt myself as math and science person? Was it because when I was at science and math competitions, most of the contestants were boys? Was it because the math and science teachers at our school were mostly males so I had no female role models? Was it because there was a common perception that people working in STEM fields were men? Or, did my personal experience that female voices were generally perceived as secondary to men that lead me to always doubt myself?

I can’t say for sure, and perhaps there is more than one answer. After all, I am an American of Philippine descent, grappling with the long-held belief that I’m part of a race that is supposed to be accomplished in the maths and sciences. If math and science did not come easy to me, then, in my young mind, I wasn’t that smart.

Yet, with age and motherhood, I’ve found myself reviewing my thoughts, speech, and actions. For instance, when my daughter Sienna was in 6th grade, her math teacher said she was a candidate for the next year’s Mathcounts, a national middle school competition. I was very proud of her, but was also worried. When I was in 8th grade, I was part of the school’s Mathcounts team, and we lost (more like, we got creamed) at the contest. Kids were doing math I didn’t even know existed. Perhaps that experience also played a role in diminishing my confidence as a math person.

Looking back at what I now know about competitions, the kids from other schools probably trained for the challenge. As far as I recall, my school did nothing to prepare us. Maybe my female math teacher did not know what to expect, or she had her own insecurities about math. (Female teachers can pass on their math anxieties to girls, according to a study published in the January 25, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) Or, maybe our school did not have the resources available to prepare for such challenges. Maybe my confidence dropped as it typically does with girls my age. (A poll of more than 1,300 American girls aged 8 to 18 found that teens and tweens experience a 30% drop in confidence, according to Claire Shipman, Katty Kay and JillEllyn Riley, authors of “The Confidence Code for Girls.”)

I fretted that Sienna’s confidence in her math skills would dip just like mine did. Most of the students in her advanced math class were boys. How would she feel about being one of the few girls in the competition? It did not help that Sienna’s 7th grade math teacher, a young female, seemed to wince when I asked about preparations for the Mathcounts contest. She took a deep breath, and responded: “It’s really important that Sienna have time to be social this year.”

I did not know what to make of her remark. Was I coming off as a Tiger mom? Was I pushing Sienna because of my own failed Mathcounts experience? Of course I did not want to force her into something that would be physically and emotionally devastating. Of course I did not want to make her do something she hated. Of course I wanted her to have a social life. So, I asked her if she wanted to be a part of the competition. She gave a typical middle school nonchalant response.

“Sure,” she said.

“Do you really want to do this?” I pressed.

“Yes!” she said with the impatience of a tween not wanting to be grilled by her mother, and who can’t believe she’s being asked a silly question.

I backed off and let my daughter handle the Mathcounts trials without any at-home support. In the end, she took a test and did not qualify for the competition. I’m sure the school had a lot of good candidates, and the students who did make it to the school team were well qualified. I’m also sure that Sienna was capable of taking part in the competition. She has had exemplary grades in her advanced math courses. Yet, I do wonder how much she was set up to succeed. Sure, kids enter these contests all the time without extra support from their teachers and parents. So, it was entirely possible for her to place on her own. However, how many other kids had additional support to enter the contest? How many teachers and parents of boys were told to consider their social lives before participating in the extra challenge? How many mothers’ self-doubts prevented them from advocating for their daughters?

In hindsight, I would have loved to ask questions like: How does my daughter’s social life relate to the math competition? Is there any reason to believe that her social life would suffer because of it? Is it a given that students who prepare for the contest end up socially inadequate? Does my daughter get a say? Who says she can’t enjoy the camaraderie of her teammates and consider that a social life?

Who Has the Edge?

This year, my daughter Jasmine’s elementary school piloted an independent study program in advanced math. For the course, administrators chose the top-scoring 4th grade students, as determined by the previous year’s standardized math exam. At first, only the top four students were selected, and they happened to be boys. One of the teachers told me the staff did not think that was okay, so they made an effort to include the top four girls in the program. Jasmine was chosen as one of those girls.

It would seem that the girls were given a handicap to enter an elite group. However, if we consider scientific research, we might also want to re-analyze the methods used to determine which students receive special opportunities.

In a 2018 article in the Scientific American, Colleen Ganley, assistant professor of developmental psychology, addressed the question “Are Boys Better Than Girls in Math?” in a same-titled article. Ganley wrote:

“In general, boys tend to outperform girls on tests that are less related to what is taught in schools (like the SAT math test, for example) whereas there tend to be minimal gender differences on statewide standards-based math tests, which are more tied to what’s taught in schools. When it comes to grades in school, which are even more closely tied to the curriculum, girls often outperform boys. “

A large body of research shows that males generally outperform females in more competitive environments, whereas females have an edge in more team-oriented scenarios. In a 2017 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), girls outperformed boys in math, science, and reading in collaborative problem-solving environments in all of the 52 countries studied.

I wondered: If girls are judged only according to their standardized test scores or performances in competitions, then are their abilities fully recognized? If schools and workplaces measure students with tools that tend to be more advantageous to males, then are females truly given a fair shot at success?

I also wondered: Are there ways to improve females’ performance and confidence in competitive environments?

More assertive attitudes could improve career outcomes for women, suggests research by Katherine B. Coffman, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.

“Our beliefs about ourselves are important in shaping all kinds of important decisions, such as what colleges we apply to, which career paths we choose, and whether we are willing to contribute ideas in the workplace or try to compete for a promotion,” says Coffman in a Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge website.

In the site, she also says that company leaders could help support women’s voices and participation in the workforce: “I would say providing extra feedback is a good start. If you as an employer see talent somewhere, reaching out to make sure the person is encouraged, recognized, and rewarded—not just once, but repeatedly—could be a helpful thing to do.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Shortly after the summer break began, my daughter Jasmine’s robotics instructor said the kids had the opportunity to compete with teams from other schools. Since it was short notice, he said it was up to each team to decide whether or not to participate.

I communicated via text with the other mothers in Jasmine’s all-girls team. One of the moms said her daughter was worried that the team did not have all the photos they needed to compete since everyone’s materials was inside campus, which was closed because of the pandemic.

Since I had been reading that females tend to shortchange themselves, I suggested that the girls discuss what they do have and present it to the instructor. Perhaps a more objective party could help determine whether or not the girls had enough to compete. I didn’t think the teacher would invite the girls to participate if he did not think they had enough material.

One of the moms said she thought it was important to respect the girls’ decision on whether or not to join the contest. If the girls decided they didn’t have enough materials, she said they could then go ahead and enjoy their summer vacation. The mother’s message felt a bit like déjà vu. I wondered: In suggesting the girls consult with the teacher, did I come off as pushing the students to compete? That certainly wasn’t my intention, and I can’t be sure that’s what she meant when she said we needed to “respect the girls’ decision” to compete. It’s tough to communicate through text sometimes. However, such interactions leave me pondering if we women are continuing to limit ourselves and our girls.

I don’t believe that females should be forced to do something they don’t choose to do. I also don’t think school competitions and STEM jobs necessarily make people happy. However, I do wonder whether the road to gender and racial equity in STEM fields needs to involve a little more discomfort for everyone. Perhaps children’s tech toys and gadgets could be redesigned to appeal to both girls and boys. Perhaps more girls can be encouraged to balance tough competitions with leisure time. With more girls in competitions, perhaps more boys can have the opportunity to compete in a more collaborative manner. Perhaps more females could undergo assertiveness training, and males could attend workshops on collaboration. Perhaps there could be more discussions reassessing what’s for girls and what’s for boys. Perhaps if we regularly did the arduous work of checking stereotypes about males, females, white people, Black people, Hispanics, and Asians, we’d learn to focus more on the work at hand rather than on preconceived notions.

Will all of this ultimately reduce the gap between the sexes and the races in STEM classes and careers? Perhaps. None of this will come easy. Yet, I can’t help but think that when we strive to live in a more egalitarian society, we get to hear more perspectives and more diverse solutions to problems. That can’t be a bad thing. Plus, with more jobs of the future focused on digitization, automation, and robotization, those that don’t have needed skills could have slimmer opportunities to earn livable wages.

Let’s also not forget that people who work in areas such as information technology, engineering, data analysis, and scientific research can have a big influence on how the world operates. If we truly want to achieve a more harmonious, equitable society, we need to start changing the way we look at ourselves and others around us.

Change can result in a lot of discomfort. Yet, aren’t we already feeling the pain now? We call out the gender and racial wage gaps. We decry the walls that shut out women and minorities from opportunities. And, we lament the imperfect system that dictates the way we work, live, and play. There is no doubt that there are forces that prevent equalization, and that the world’s issues are complex — so much so that just one solution won’t make the world a better place. However, if we start by zeroing in on a layer like stereotypes, we might bring about change by reexamining views about our ourselves and others.

© 2020 Windswept Wildflower

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