Women in STEM Summary

At this point, the paper has been written, edited by my advisor, and is expected to be its final form by this coming Monday. A few minor edits and points of reorganization will be incorporated into the discussion section. All told, this project was a fulfilling and enriching experience, and I am happy to share my results and conclusion here to summarize the experience.

Participants in this project were first categorized by their current sub-discipline within the broader field of STEM. Many of the women listed by their current field have expertise and degrees beyond this category. For example, several of the participants currently working in the Technology/Computer Science field have a background in mathematics, and those currently working in Science Administration or Communication have a wide variety of degrees in chemistry, geology, engineering, and other scientific disciplines. Participants were evaluated based on their current professional area, or their most recent if the participant had retired, for ease of analysis in this paper.

The goal in selecting participants was to represent a wide array of STEM fields in the study. Of the 38 participants interviewed, 13.2% worked in Aeronautic or Mechanical Engineering, 18.4% worked in a field related to Environmental Science, Policy, or Engineering, 13.2% worked in the Biological Sciences, 10.5% worked in Medicine or Pharmacy, 18.4% worked in Technology or Computer Science, 13.2% worked in Physics or Meteorology, 5.2% worked in Science Communication and Outreach, and 7.9% worked in Science Administration.

When asked about their undergraduate experience, the 37 applicable participants had a wide range of responses regarding their treatment, which included access to role models and sexist obstacles that they may have encountered. None of the participants surveyed felt that gender had been a fully positive factor at this level of education, 11% said that gender was both positive and negative at points during their undergraduate career, 35% said that gender had been a negative factor or hindrance as they worked to obtain their degree, and 54% felt that gender had not been a significant factor during this portion of their academic career. The results when the same question was asked regarding graduate school were slightly different. Of the 29 women who had attended graduate school, none felt that gender had been an entirely positive factor in their higher education experience, 21% said that their gender had been both positive and negative at varying points, 31% said that gender had been a wholly negative factor, and 48% did not believe gender to be a factor. Of the 28 participants who had obtained both an undergraduate and graduate degree(s), 50% felt that their treatment remained consistent at both levels of education, 21.4% thought that their gender became a factor in graduate school after feeling that it did not impact their undergraduate education, 21.4% reported the opposite and stated that gender stopped being a factor in graduate school after being prominent in their time as an undergraduate, and 7.1% said that gender remained a factor in both areas but impacted them differently between degrees.

The next area of inquiry involved the prevalence of perceived gender bias in a professional context. All 38 of the study participants addressed this questions, yielding the following results: 32% felt that gender was not a factor in their career, 16% said that gender had positively impacted them and afforded them unique opportunities, 26% said that their gender was both a positive and negative factor, and 26% felt that their gender led to discriminatory actions and was a negative factor in the trajectory of their career. Of the 10 women who felt that gender had been a fully negative factor in their professional life, 30% worked in Aeronautic/Mechanical Engineering, 20% worked in the Biological Sciences, 20% worked in Medicine/Pharmacy, and 10% each worked in the categories of Technology/Computer Science, Environmental Science/Policy/Engineering, and Physics/Meteorology.

The next question addressed whether gender was a factor that the participant considered when making hiring decisions. As mentioned in the Methods section of this paper, this question was often interpreted by participants as a question about whether the participant took gender into consideration while making personal decisions about her own career. Out of the 38 participants surveyed, 12 addressed the question just in regards to hiring, 4 answered it just in regards to personal choices, 21 addressed both aspects of the question, and 1 participant felt that neither interpretation of the question was applicable to her career. Of those who addressed the question regarding gender and hiring decisions, 39% said that they did consider an applicant or candidate’s gender when making hiring decisions, and 61% said that they worked to avoid using gender as a factor in those decisions. Of the 13 participants that said they do consider a candidate’s gender, 6 said that they would be more likely to hire a woman when considering the overall difficulty women face in the job market, 1 said that she would subconsciously tend to hire and trust men, and 6 said that gender was a consideration as a factor in building a cohesive work team and thus they could be biased toward men or women depending on circumstances. Of the participants who discussed whether gender was a factor in decisions they made about their own career, 56% said that their gender was a factor and 44% said that their gender was not a factor. Of the 14 participants who said that their gender was a factor in their career decisions, 78.6% cited children and family as motivation for these gender-based choices.

One of the most broad and significant questions asked in this study was whether the participants felt that treatment of women, in STEM or in their particular field, had improved, stayed the same, or worsened over the course of their career. Of the 38 participants surveyed, 58% said that they felt treatment of women had improved, 34% felt that there had been no change in the treatment of women, and 8% believed that the treatment of women had worsened over time. The final question asked in the confidential interview involved the personal trait(s) each participant felt had done the most to bring about their success in a STEM career. Responses fell into ten main categories, and some participants listed responses in multiple of these categories. Of the 38 participants surveyed, 50.0% mentioned perseverance/persistence as an important trait, 44.7% mentioned confidence/directness, 21.1% cited ambition/drive, 13.2% mentioned communication skills and teamwork, 7.9% felt that humor in the face of adversity was essential, 7.9% mentioned curiosity, 5.3% said that the ability to ask for help and self-prioritize was important, and 5.3% claimed that passion was instrumental in getting them through obstacles in their career path.

A number of theories for these results were discussed in the paper, but the overall consensus found over the course of the study was that there were a huge range of experiences, depending on a number of factors like age, field, and family. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the impact of gender and other factors on quality of life and treatment of individuals in a professional environment. These issues are often particularly prominent in the field of STEM, an area historically thought to be better suited for upper-class men. This study sought to better understand the individual experiences of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, rather than focusing on the broader societal issue. For this reason, the data was not entirely homogenous and therefore it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations or recommendations for the STEM community as a whole. What is clear and apparent through these thirty-eight interviews is that each and every woman dealing with the obstacles and stigma associated with gender bias has a unique story and perspective. We would therefore suggest that the best way to deal with gender bias in a particular academic institution or company would be to speak to the women already working there about the weaknesses and strengths of that specific program. There is value to be gained from qualitative and comprehensive data collection and open discussions on this topic, and the women currently in the STEM workforce are the best sources of information and engines for change.


  1. rsmcgrath says:

    Shannon, this is a really cool project with an obviously vital topic. I found it interesting, though, that the percentage of your participants who did not feel their gender was a factor in graduate level STEM education was so high. I feel like I hear complaints about just so often in the media, so I would be curious to see if a different sample would yield different results.

  2. Amelia Carolus-Hager says:

    You interviewed an impressive range of women! Sounds like we still have a long way to go, unfortunately, but you make a great point about needing to address needs on a more individual basis.
    I wonder what it would look like if you conducted the same interviews with a group of men… Where do you think the biggest differences would be?

  3. Your project sounds like it was very well done! As a woman preparing for a career in the sciences, it was interesting to see hard data regarding others’ experiences in this field. I found it disheartening that 31% of the women in graduate school found gender to be a completely negative factor for their careers. My research lab had a group meeting this summer solely devoted to minorities (including women) in science and we discussed the issue in depth. We came to the conclusion that because many implicit biases exist against them that it can be difficult for women to establish themselves in science. Fighting these biases, as well as the other factors affecting women’s role in science, will require a lot of effort. However, I hope that if you ever do a follow-up study, you will find that the number of women who viewed their gender as a negative factor in their careers has gone down significantly!

  4. This is an important topic and it looks like you have done a great job with your research. I would be interested to see a list of questions you asked your interview subjects. What did you (or if you left it open ended enough, your subjects) consider as gender-biased behavior?