You Must Be Lost: Gender Discrimination in STEM

From the moment Katie stepped into her first high school chemistry class, she was in love with science. She marveled at the movement of atoms and molecules and found that she naturally understood the discipline. Upon graduation, she chose to stay in Kentucky for college, a decision no doubt aided by her full tuition Governor’s Scholars Program scholarship. Enthusiastically, she chose chemistry as her major.

One morning at the beginning of the semester, she was waiting outside of a laboratory, when she was approached by a freshman. “Are you lost?” he asked. Katie looked at the number on the door and then back at the schedule on her phone before responding, “No, I’m pretty sure this is the right room.” With a sense of bravado and gusto, the young man explained to her that this was the lab for chemistry majors. The non-major lab was down the hall, and that certainly must be where she belonged. After all, major-level chemistry was “hard.” Katie thanked him for his concern but said she might stick around anyway, just to see what the class was all about. Eventually, the professor unlocked the class door and the students filed in, finding their tables. Katie walked to the front of the room and then introduced herself to the class; as the teaching assistant. She watched the color rush from the freshman’s face and by the next class, he had withdrawn from the lab. 

While sexual misconduct is mostly thought of when speaking of Title IX, often overlooked is the law’s goal of equity. As the legislation states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Despite this, women in male dominated fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) often find gender discrimination a regular part of their higher education experience.

A recent study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly revealed that of 685 female undergraduates enrolled in an introductory biology course, 69% had experienced gender bias and 78.1% experienced sexual harassment in their program, leading to a decrease in their motivation to pursue their STEM education. Despite Title IX’s purpose of preventing discrimination, gender stereotypes and biased attitudes of classmates and colleagues fly in the face of the spirit of Title IX. 

One such stereotype is that STEM fields are masculine. Studies have shown this stereotype emerging in childhood and persisting through adolescence by the outsized presence of male STEM teachers and imbalanced classroom gender composition. So, it is no surprise that, by college, female students often find themselves having to prove their belonging in these programs to their male peers. 

“As a woman, you constantly had to prove yourself,” Katie said. “I’ve had male classmates refuse to study with me and some even refuse to speak to me until we received our first round of grades,” she continued. Once Katie’s classmates saw her acing her exams, she states that it gave her the credibility required for her male classmates to accept that she deserved to be in the major. “Proving my intelligence gave them the green light to interact with me, and it was a process I had to repeat with every STEM course I took,” she said. 

  Katie isn’t alone in this process either. In her recent research, Professor Joan C. Williams from UC Hastings College of the Law, highlighted the “Prove-it-Again” pattern as one of five biases pushing women out of STEM. Of the women she interviewed, two-thirds reported having to continuously prove themselves, with their successes being discounted and their expertise questioned regularly. 

A second bias, Williams notes, is women in STEM having to walk the tightrope of needing to behave in masculine ways to be seen as competent but still being expected to act feminine. This includes the way women dress. Nicole, a biomedical imaging graduate student from Maryland, recalls the unofficial dress code she had to adopt. “There’s this stigma that if you dressed a certain way, you won’t be taken seriously,” Nicole said. “I was quite aware that I was in a boys club, so as such, I had to adapt,” she continued. This adaptation would include making sure she never wore skirts, heels or anything that even remotely showed cleavage. 

Microaggressions such as these fly under Title IX’s radar, creating an environment where female students face obstacles their male counterparts don’t. Created as an answer to the sexual discrimination and underrepresentation that women face in STEM programs, some institutions offer programs aimed at female students. Lexington’s Rise STEM Academy for Girls was established in 2020 for the purpose of supporting girls in STEM in their formative years and encouraging them to pursue the field professionally. UK offers a girls-only engineering high school summer camp, a Women in Engineering Day for high school girls, a female-only program called Lunch with Society of Engineers and the Sarah Bennett Holmes Award, which annually recognizes one female faculty member and one female staff member. But of course, any time there is an initiative advancing women, someone will always be ready to stand in opposition.

Since 2016, University of Michigan-Flint Professor of Business and Economics Mark Perry has made it his crusade to stop female-focused STEM programs. Perry discounts the notion of gender inequality in STEM stating, “female success in academia is so overwhelming that the notion that women face disadvantages is outdated.” As such, he has filed over 130 Title IX complaints against colleges nationwide, including UK, for female-focused STEM programs, which he claims is part of a “gender apartheid” against men. 

By the black letter of the law, a university accepting federal funding may not exclude a student from participation in an educational program based on their sex. Would those who advocate for women’s rights and equality be up in arms if a university created a men’s only STEM program? Absolutely. But what Perry’s narrative misses, are the reasons why female-focused STEM programs and events are needed in the first place. It is true that there has been remarkable success by women in STEM fields. Just a few of the names of women making important contributions to STEM fields are Mariana Matus, a biologist and CEO of Biobot Analytics; Candice Bridge, a professor of forensic science and chemistry; and Yamuna Krishnan, a professor at The University of Chicago’s Department of Chemistry. What Perry’s narrative neglects however, is that the “overwhelming success” he speaks of, comes in spite of the bias-riddled environment these women have studied and worked in. Female-focused STEM programs are not examples of inequities, they are a response to inequities; which is the spirit of Title IX as a law.

James J. Wilkerson, J.D., is the director of Staff Diversity and Equity and the Deputy Title IX Coordinator at IU Southeast.