The Root Cause of Women in STEM Problem #AddWomen

This post originally appeared on April 21, 2015 written by Aisha Springer.

Last month, the American Association for University Women (AAUW) released a report, Solving the Equation, which outlines the variables that affect women’s success in computing and engineering. It is the latest in a list of studies identifying bias as the root of the lack of women in STEM and leads to the pipeline issues and “personal choices” of women who opt out. Workplaces and academic environments are made unwelcoming to women due to stereotypes and biases, resulting in isolation, loss of opportunities, and other limitations. Simply recruiting more girls into existing educational programs does not solve the problem; the environments where they learn and work need to be reformed so they can achieve a sense of belonging and purpose in their STEM careers.

AAUW held a Twitter chat to coincide with a Solving the Equation panel on the report’s release, using the hashtag #AddWomen to track the conversation. Other hashtags on the subject include #WomeninSTEM and #STEMinism.

“Lean in” feminism encourages women to break the glass ceiling of leadership in business. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; the problem is that the dominant message that each woman can “lean in” to achieve business success minimizes the role bias plays in the workplace and focuses on middle-to-upper-class white women, leaving out the women most lacking rights and representation.

Dialogue about the lack of women in STEM fields particularly suffers from this problem. While research shows that girls begin to lose interest in STEM subjects in middle school, the fact that gender and racial biases influence students through their parents, teachers, media and the culture at large, is sometimes downplayed as if this loss of interest was biological. The insidious nature of bias is that it persists into adulthood and, if left unchecked, guides our behavior, and so women working in STEM fields are subject to implicit and explicit biases every day in these predominantly white male fields.

A 2014 UC Hastings study also supports the importance of bias in women’s STEM representation. It identifies five biases that push women out of STEM fields and how they affect women differently depending on race. One of the biases, called the “tightrope,” refers to the thin line women must walk between acting in traditionally masculine or feminine ways. If a woman acts too feminine, she is seen as incompetent. If she acts too masculine, she becomes unlikable. Asian American women in particular reported feeling pressure to play a stereotypically feminine role. Black and Latina women were more likely to be seen as angry when they don’t conform to the role, reinforcing the “angry black woman” stereotype. This puts women in the position of having to defer to male colleagues and hold back to avoid being berated by superiors (an experience reported by women in the study) or suffering other consequences that limit their career growth.


The recent loss of a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by Ellen Pao against her venture capitalist former employer highlights the challenge of combating implicit bias. When it results in discrimination, it’s very difficult to prove. Prevention requires us to be constantly aware of internalized biases as they arise, which takes will and persistence. Hopefully, the publicity surrounding these studies and #EllenPao’s case creates a groundswell of support for initiatives to make white male-dominated workplaces and educational programs more welcoming to women of every race.