Gender gap in STEM fields a product of cultural norm, may be combatted through University Research Initiative

Mary Dolan

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

These comments were made by Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt at the World Conference of Science Journalists on June 8. Sparking immediate backlash, many female scientists and researchers responded by posting pictures of themselves conducting labwork accompanied by sarcastic captions on social media. While their responses are humorous, they shed important light on the issue of sexism and gender inequality in many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields worldwide, nationally and at UT.

Women currently account for only 25 percent of undergraduates at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Post-college, women hold only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science and 27 percent of computer science jobs nationwide.

The gender disparity in STEM begins in primary school. Studies by the Girl Scouts of America have shown that young women are less likely to take an interest in STEM subjects before college. The gender imbalance can become a self-perpetuating problem due to the creation of an atmosphere where women feel “lesser” than their male counterparts simply because they are underrepresented. The reasons for women’s relative marginalization in labs begin with assigning academic areas to students at a young age.

There is a social and cultural norm pushing male and female students into different fields. Gender disparity is not exclusive to the sciences. For example, the Liberal Arts Honors Program accepted 47 men and 90 women into their program in 2014. The gender disparity in competitive programs like LAH and engineering is more than likely a result of the existing admissions pool, not admissions readers’ biases.

Many on-campus organizations have begun making efforts to close the gender gap in the sciences. The Cockrell School of Engineering has created groups for freshmen and sophomore female engineers: First Year Initiative and Women in the Second year of Engineering (WISE). These groups provide mentoring programs and academic help for current engineering students. They also help female students establish connections with other female engineers.

Cockrell also has Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day for students in grades K-12. This day is designed to give young women an opportunity to meet others in the engineering industry and encourage these women to participate in engineering-related activities before they consider career options.

The newest state-funded promotion of STEM fields at public universities also provides a unique opportunity to promote women in the sciences.  Gov. Greg Abbott signed the University Research Initiative on June 4. The URI will give more than $8 billion to STEM programs at Texas public universities in order to improve Texas colleges’ competitiveness nationwide.

With the state’s greater emphasis on STEM fields, some of that attention should be directed at correcting the gender disparity in such programs. It would be ideal for a portion of the funds to be put toward attracting women to STEM programs. Because of the current lack of women in STEM, it would be ludicrous to promote these careers without encouraging a full half of the population to pursue science-related interests in an increasingly technology-driven world.

While it will take some time to see if the gender gap and sexism in STEM are diminished, groups such as the ones here on campus should definitely be supported. We should inform women of all ages about existing and growing opportunities and encourage them to pursue their interests in STEM subjects and fields.

Dolan is a journalism freshman from Abilene. Follow Dolan on Twitter @mimimdolan.