A number of reasons have been advanced as to why women’s education should be encouraged. Lindgren and Taub note that these include enabling them to have the opportunity to compete fairly with their male counterparts in limited employment opportunities (3). Apart from basic reading and writing skills, which have for a long time defined the major reason behind education, there is a need to provide people with the opportunity to use the education gained in colleges and universities. To this end, women have made notable entries in institutions of higher learning, and now they hold senior positions in areas that were initially seen as difficult professions. Traditionally, such areas as engineering and sciences were impenetrable for the majority of women in many cultures. In order to address the issue that only a few women enter traditionally male-dominated careers, the paper will identify some of the impediments that are seen as reasons behind this.
Women’s entry into science and engineering
Sheffield (21) observes that less than a century ago, women were not allowed to obtain education; in fact, it was not mandatory for a woman to go to school and learn. Male children were given first priority when it came to the matters of education and there was no debate about it. Moreover, even those women who went to school and achieved as much as their male counterparts did were discriminated against by laws that barred them from holding certain jobs. Surprisingly, women earned less money than their male partners even if they hold the same position. This is still the case in some organizations, even though it is done behind the curtain. However, with proper legislation and advocacy of women’s rights activists, women started going to school to learn, but unfortunately patriarchal society stereotypically designated some jobs as meant for educated women. An exception was during the two World Wars, when there was labor shortage, which allowed some educated women to be hired for science and engineering jobs. This led to achievements of women in science and engineering; for example, Barbara McClintock was a Nobel laureate for her studies in genetics.
Nevertheless, some actions have been taken to increase the number of women not only in colleges and universities, but also in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Sommers (12) observes that this happened after the realization that so many women were dumped in humanities, sciences, and art courses in colleges and universities. The famous Title IX contributed immensely to women’s participation in sports. However, the application of the same legislation recommended encouraging more women to get into STEM fields. According to a research report by National Academies of Sciences (2), the number of women getting degrees and Ph.Ds has slightly surpassed that of men during the five past years, even though the concentration is in areas that are traditionally considered as female. Generally, good progress is being made towards achieving equality in education, and more so, in the fields that men used to dominate.
Several factors explain the reason why the number of women in education has increased while remaining small in areas that are male-dominated. Sommers (12) argues that although education system encourages the entrance of women, the environment in which education is delivered both in terms of social structures and institutions themselves still presents an impediment to full participation of women. According to Steinbach (1) in a Voice of America Report, a good number of women are still faced with social cultures and practices that are a hindrance to the fields that require STEM training. For instance, the report indicated that cultural and environmental factors were responsible for the low entry of women into STEM trainings and, therefore, few women in science and engineering.
One of the cultural factors that impede the entrance of women in STEM courses is a general perception in society that boys tend to perform better than girls in subjects that lead to a STEM training. Stewart et al (40) observe that this statement has been reinforced by reports from Harvard University in which, for several years, almost all female students that register for a course called Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra (popularly known as Math 55) opt out of the course before completing it. Interestingly, male students also drop out of the course, and this has not attracted anybody’s interest. A few that remain are only male students who have been labeled as resilient. This factor in some way has enabled strengthening of a long-held myth even among women themselves that they do not have enough stamina to withstand pressurizing and demanding work, and thus they cannot become good scientists or engineers.
Lindgren and Taub (5) observe that one of the major environmental factors impeding the entry of women into science and engineering has been lack of motivation and role models in the industry. According to the National Research Council (6), fewer women are currently employed in faculties that teach STEM courses, and thus many women find it strange to aspire to enter an area that few women have ventured into before. Stewart et al (62) note that this has become a transitional problem, since it is passed from one generation to another. As a result, the fields of science and technology continue to be dominated by men whose motivation in the field remains high if the results of their studies are something to go with. A study done on freshmen in one college indicated that 74% of male students would consider entering a STEM course with a view to pursuing a career in this field. Contrary to this, only 22% of females responded positively when the same question was put to them.
Another major impediment to women becoming scientists and engineers is a traditional problem of stereotyping. According to Sommers (12), most children are exposed to a notion that boys perform better in STEM courses than girls while they are still very young. This negative stereotyping of women and girls is transferred to their adult life. Girls thus lose confidence in taking up the courses connected with science and engineering. Furthermore, the psychological effect of negative stereotyping is evident in early education, especially during the primary level when girls exhibit stereotypical beliefs about science courses as being suitable for males rather than females. Unfortunately, some parents even assist their girl-children in choosing courses that are perceived typically female. Similarly, girls also express dislike of the general representation of a scientist as a man and, therefore, use this dislike while choosing courses for their higher education.
Additionally, Sommers (12) observes that stereotyping follows female students that choose to pursue science courses, affecting their performance and aspirations. Strong female students who identify themselves with STEM courses have become susceptible to the stereotype of this nature and continually perform poorly in these courses. It is common for people to become surprised by a woman who introduces herself as an engineering student. This kind of reaction of society plays a role in ruining the morale of that woman; in the end, it may discourage her from advancing to the next level. Such reactions also discourage women who might be considering a career in science in addition to leading to a process called disidentification (Sommers, 18). In stereotyping, disidentification is when a person avoids doing something for fear of being judged stereotypically. In this case, women deliberately avoid STEM courses because they do not want to be judged if they ever fail in them. This happens even if a woman is mathematically well-endowed, which is not in itself an important consideration. However, as indicated by Sheffield (21), disidentification continues to limit the number of women that are enrolled in colleges and universities to study STEM courses, leading to very few women scientists and engineers.
Sheffield (21) further observes that eliminating stereotyping is a difficult endeavor, although it can be achieved. This is because it is a socio-cultural problem that emanates from social structures that first impact on a girl-child when she is born. A good number of cultures, if not all cultures, give preference to a boy-child than to a girl-child. For instance, when a girl is born, she is given soft objects such as dollies and teddy bears to play with. A room meant for a girl-child is painted in pink, and everything in there is leaned towards female gender roles. She accompanies her mother in doing laundry and cooking in the kitchen; and if she happens to touch a hard object, the girl is told that her brother is the one to use such objects. On the other hand, a boy-child is given hard toys, tracks and accompanies his father in doing the mowing. The room is painted in blue, and everything around the boy is hard and dangerous. This kind of upbringing, which is acceptable in many homes, plays a role in the perception that women later attach to courses that lead to a certain career.
Corporate impediments to women becoming scientists and engineers
There are several factors preventing women from entering science and engineering even if they are qualified academically. According to the National Academies of Sciences Report (2), women are faced with many challenges that prevent them from entering these fields compared to their male counterparts. For instance, most corporations have de facto recruitment and hiring policies that present barriers to women who would have wanted to enter these corporations. In some corporations and companies, a male engineer is given preference to a female engineer, even if they are all qualified and have the same academic level. In general, there is an aspect of male-dominated corporate culture that scares women off venturing into the fields of STEM.
Similarly, the few women who are already in STEM fields are continuously faced with reverse discrimination and sexual harassment from some of the male colleagues already in the field. As noted by Schiebinger (9), reverse discrimination against women occurs when promotions and other incentives within a corporation are given depending on the gender of the employee. Even though this practice is not common, most of the women who are affected by it lack proper channels to communicate their predicament while in the field. This is because even top management is normally supportive of reverse discrimination against women. As a result, many women end up even discouraging their daughters or any other woman who may want to pursue a course in STEM. The same issue becomes evident when it comes to sexual harassment; when women are harassed sexually, they cannot report on the matter because the culprit is their boss and they risk losing their job.
Another impediment comes in during the distribution of high quality jobs among employees of a company. Lindgren and Taub (5) note that most corporations will give high quality job assignments to male employees, which then brings them higher salaries than their female counterparts. Such practice discourages women from desiring to advance in their career as scientists or engineers because prospects of getting a better salary for them become a mirage. They abandon their careers and some even venture into fields considered female such as teaching and nursing. Additional impediments to women becoming scientists and engineers include maternal responsibilities that women cannot avoid. This is worsened by the failure of the corporate world to effectively accommodate family-related issues. For instance, a pregnant woman may not be assigned a heavy duty, for example supervising a construction site. Therefore, most corporations put this factor into consideration while hiring employees. Young active women are thus denied opportunities in some companies because their chances of taking maternity leave are high, especially if they have family commitments like those in marriage.
In order to increase the number of women in science and engineering, it is necessary to provide incentives for women to go into STEM fields and educate society on the importance of allowing girls to pursue the course of their choice. This will go a long way in eliminating stereotyping culture in them. Moreover, this will help to encourage the women who have already entered the field. Role models such as Lillian Moller Gilbreth who made it in both high flying academy and family matters can be given to boost the morale of women who might be split between family and career. Despite having to take care of 12 children, Moller was able to distinguish herself as a scholar earning her accolades in engineering. Similarly, there should be better laws to safeguard women against any form of harassment and discrimination. Another role model for women who are faced with stereotypes in their career is Sheilla Windvall who was the first woman to head the military with qualifications in aeronautical engineering, with many of her achievements accredited to her supportive family. Finally, there is a need to encourage both parents and teachers to support all children equally and give them relevant information on how to succeed in various courses.
In conclusion, it is evident that women can effectively compete with their male counterparts in courses like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, several factors including environmental, socio-cultural, and corporate practices present a challenge to them and discourage them from venturing fully into the courses and careers connected with STEM.