Gender Stereotypes: Do Women who Persist in STEM maintain negative gender stereotypes?

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Roxanne Hughes, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, Tallahassee, FL
Background: In 1977, Carole Yee wrote a paper describing the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and the state of feminism in STEM. She argued “without sisterhood, those women who find careers in traditionally male fields delude themselves into thinking that their positions are the result of their own hard work, intelligence, and determination” (p 127). Sadly, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields today. This underrepresentation is a global concern since half of the world’s population (females) is severely underrepresented in careers that are important to national health, prosperity, and innovation. This underrepresentation of women persists despite policies and programs that aim to provide access to and opportunities for women in these fields. Methods: This study focused on undergraduate women’s identity trajectories and how these related to their original chosen STEM major. The author conducted narrative life histories with 26 undergraduate women who originally declared a STEM major at a university in the southeastern United States. The study was guided by Syed’s theory of identity development. The author focused on gender identity and the role that each participant’s perception of her gender identity had on her ability to identify with her chosen STEM field. Fourteen of these women persisted in their original STEM major and 12 did not. The analysis of these interviews provided evidence that women who identify with more feminine traits are still not able to identify with STEM.  Results: In this study, 71% (10/14) of the stayers compared to only 50% (6/12) of the leavers referenced gender stereotypes in their discussions of gender identity. The fact that more stayers held stereotypes related to women is alarming for two reasons. First, if these women are worried about family planning or believe that women cannot have a career and family, then how will this affect their persistence or their choices regarding families? Second, if these women do persist but maintain a negative attitude toward women, then will they mentor these young women? Conclusion: This study demonstrates that women who fit the category of female stereotypes are still not welcomed in to STEM fields. This means that certain personality traits are valued over others in these fields, which raises concerns regarding diversity. As postmodern feminism reveals, gender is just one aspect of a person’s identity. If STEM fields do not have a comparable representation of worldviews, personalities, and life experiences, then these fields will continue to ignore members of society. Diversity is not simply based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or class but also how individuals from these different viewpoints experience the world. This type of diversity is crucial to all fields but particularly STEM fields which are so important to individual as well as national economic improvement.