11 Ways Women See STEM As A 4-Letter Word

This is a guest post by Joanne Manaster, a cell biologist and educator at the University of Illinois who writes a blog at Scientific American. She is active on social media as an advocate for STEM and science literacy.

Read more perspectives on women in STEM here.

"STEM" usually stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—but sometimes it represents several roadblocks to those fields.

Here are some alternate STEM acronyms preventing women from finding success in science and technology.

What Stops Girls From Choosing STEM Careers?

1. She Thinks "Exceptional Minds"

The belief that "only smart people do science or math" is an insidious deterrent.

2. Stereotype Threats Erase Motivation

When a group believes a prevailing idea (for instance, "girls are bad at math"), they may perform to those expectations, preventing them from pursuing challenges.

3. Society Tells her it's Extremely Male

"Girls don't do Science" is a lie. They do, though they are represented unevenly across specialties. Biology attracts women while computer science and electrical engineering see low percentages pursuing degrees.

4. Stemming Tide of Elderly Men

Ask a child to draw a scientist and they likely draw an old man with crazy white hair. STEM has a persistent image problem where girls don't see themselves reflected in that image.

5. Stylish, Trendsetting Elegance Missing

Science's style is professional and modest. Women may not be taken seriously if they express their femininity or uniqueness, and this may deter girls who want to express themselves via fashion.

6. Solo Toil Extensively Mandated

Scientists and engineers are misperceived as working alone for extended periods in the lab. How could one find a significant other or have a social life if that's the case?

7. Seeming Trendy Eclipses Mastery

Girls who reveal to their peers that they are quite talented in science and math think they are committing social suicide, so they will pretend to be less intelligent in order to fit in.

These misperceptions are best countered by exposing young girls to successful and productive women in STEM fields.

What Keeps Women From Staying in STEM Careers?

8. Sexism Tempers Enthusiasm Markedly

Needless to say, it is disappointing to be "valued" for your body when you came to the field to be valued for your mind. It's frustrating to be treated as "less than" when you are perfectly capable.

9. Suppressed Tenure, Earnings and Mobility

Both men and women are guilty of gender bias in STEM fields. Women receive fewer invitations to professional meetings, and research paper acceptance, pay scales and promotion to tenure favor males over females.

10. Scarcity of True Encouragement and Mentorship

With the lack of women in higher positions, there are fewer female mentors to support and guide younger women.

11. Shortens Time to Experience Motherhood

Balancing work and life is tricky in STEM fields because taking time to tend to your family might be seen as a lack of commitment to your career choice, leading to lost opportunities.

STEM workplace atmosphere and policies need to be more welcoming and supportive of women.

The good news is that all of these "four-letter words" can be overcome or minimized when a woman is confident, curious, disciplined and loves learning. Women CAN persevere and thrive in STEM fields.

Are there other STEM acronyms you would like to contribute to this conversation? How about some positive ones to encourage girls to consider STEM?

Thanks to Jag Bhalla, @hangingnoodles for refining some of the STEM phrases!

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