Why Do We Need More Women in STEM? A Gender Analysis

Here’s a long blog post to compensate for the long absence 😉

I visited some websites ([1] – [3]) that have justified why more women are needed in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) professions. I have summarised the motivations from these websites in a bulleted list below.

Women are needed in STEM to:

  • counteract negative stereotypes about what it means to have a STEM-related profession.
  • attract more girls to STEM (more role models).
  • contribute with a different perspective and solve problems from different angles (e.g. back in the days, the engineers designed the seat belts to fit the “average” male bodies and were, therefore, useless to a majority of women).
  • for the sake of diversity. Effective groups consist of a variety of people. Therefore, women in STEM are needed so that the engineering team becomes more efficient and can make better decisions.
  • there are many attractive and well-paid jobs within STEM, and it would be reprehensible if women lost the opportunity to get well-paid jobs.
  • strengthen the global economy. With more women in employment linked to STEM, we will also increase the country’s GDP.
  • enhance the power of innovation.
  • get an excellent education, since education within STEM is holistic and interdisciplinary.
  • ensure that the technical solutions are relevant and safe.
  • women have an obvious place in creating/influencing the technologies of the future.


In research where psychological differences in men and women have been studied, it has not been possible to find any significant differences. For example, it is now generally accepted that “there are no significant gender differences in terms of general intelligence” [4, p. 69]. Connell & Pearse [4] thus claim that women’s and men’s abilities are comparable and, therefore, women and men are more alike than different. The stubborn image that women and men are two distinct beings is a product of media and pop psychologists’ stories about men and women’s superficial differences. When studies have noted dissimilarities between men and women, e.g. verbal ability, visual-spatial ability, mathematical ability and aggression, these are situation-based differences rather than general ones. For example, different studies define aggression differently, and depending on how aggression is determined, differences/similarities are found in men and women. Thus, with the help of research, we can actually “create, delete or reverse gender differences depending on the context” (Hyde 2005, quoted in [4]), and this is highly problematic. But if men’s and women’s abilities are equal in most respects, one can ask whether the argument that more women are needed in STEM to create more innovative and better technologies holds. On the other hand, one can ask the opposite question. According to much scientific evidence, “STEM abilities” are as widespread in women as men. With this in mind, why are STEM-related studies and professions not attractive for many women? Why do women, who would have succeeded well in STEM, choose to study/work with something else?

There is a collection of assumptions about the characteristics of women and men. For example, women are assumed to be “caring, impressionable, talkative, emotional, intuitive, and sexually loyal; men are assumed to be aggressive, stubborn, quiet, rational, analytical and promiscuous” [4, p. 68]. Connell & Pearse believe that these assumptions are problematic because they stem from a view where these differences are considered natural (or biological) and not a result of our gender-structured social practices in a social setting. This framing, or what Connell & Pearse calls the reproductive arena, is a place where “the cultural categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ are created” [4, p. 77]. The social practices we carry out in the reproductive arena are closely linked to our bodies and bodily functions. It is within the reproductive arena that gender is created, re-created and maintained.

If we analyse STEM as a reproductive arena, we see that most of the bodies within that arena are male. These bodily practices create a pattern, a gender structure that excludes women (and certain types of men) that do not fit into the structure. According to this argument, the strong gender structure linked to the prevailing dominant form of masculinity within STEM must be broken if we want more women to choose STEM-related studies and professions. Therefore, the argument that more women are needed in STEM for more female role models would be strengthened if one accepts the argument of Connell & Pearse’s of the importance of bodies in a social context.

Connell & Pearse write that “gender is a specific form of social embodiment” [4, p. 76] and that bodies are both objects and agents in social practices. In other words, the body and its abilities are a central part of understanding gender. The fact that different bodies have different needs, experiences, and history strengthens the argument that more female bodies and experiences are needed in STEM to ensure that the technical solutions created are relevant and safe for all bodies (e.g. the seat belt). But at the same time, it is problematic to assume that changes within STEM will occur if more women apply to the field. Connell and Pearse [4, p. 189] believe that there is no support that a field (e.g. a workplace) will change just because there are more women in the field. Connell and Pearse refer to Wajcman’s research on high-tech companies that had hired more female executives. Rather than the companies being feminised, women were instead “under severe pressure to behave the same as men: to work long hours, participate in conflicts at work, put pressure on subordinates and focus on profit” [4, p. 189]. In other words, we cannot assume that more women within STEM will automatically contribute to a “different perspective to solve problems” or “more effective and innovative groups”, if the prevailing culture in a field does not allow for different ways of being and doing. If one sincerely wants to attract and retain more women within STEM, then the dominant and problematic culture within STEM must be analysed.

Finally, I want to address the argument that more women are needed in STEM because there are many attractive and well-paid jobs. The assumption here is that if more women get STEM-related occupations, they will also get better pay and employment, strengthening their position in society. Of course, more women should be able to take advantage of the resources available in the world. As it stands today, the world’s resources are allotted men to a greater extent than women [4, p. 198]. The fact that men’s wages are generally higher than women’s wages, even though the same work is done, shows society’s skewed gender values. But, as Connell and Pearse write, monetary income is not the only benefit that men have. “It is also about reputation, respect, services, security, housing, access to institutional power, emotional support, sexual pleasure and control over one’s own body” [4, p. 198]. In all these respects, men are allowed to profit to a greater extent from the patriarchal dividend. But what will happen in the future when more women enter STEM-related studies/professions? Will STEM lose its high status just like many other professional categories where women have taken over (e.g. secretaries)? It remains to be seen.

References

[1] B. Barratt, “The Need For More Women In STEM Roles Goes Beyond Simple Diversity,” Forbes, Nov. 17, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/biancabarratt/2018/11/17/the-need-for-more-women-in-stem-roles-goes-beyond-simple-diversity/ (accessed Feb. 09, 2022).

[2] G. Chan, “The Importance of Women in STEM,” The HEAD Foundation, Sep. 27, 2021. https://headfoundation.org/2021/09/27/the-importance-of-women-in-stem/ (accessed Feb. 09, 2022).

[3] V. Silva, “Why We Need More Women in STEM,” Built By Me- STEM Learning, 190605. https://www.builtbyme.com/why-we-need-more-women-in-stem/ (accessed Feb. 09, 2022).

[4] R. Connell and R. Pearse, Om Genus, 3rd ed. Göteborg: Daidalos AB, 2015.