Profs blame 'masculine' ideals for lack of women in STEM

Two professors believe that “masculine STEM ideals”—like “asking good questions” and “putting school first”—are to blame for the lack of women in math and science courses.

Laura Parson, a professor at Auburn University, and Casey Ozaki, who teaches education at the University of North Dakota, advanced the notion in an article published in the latest issue of the NASPA Journal About Women in Higher Education, noting that women are not only “less likely to major in STEM fields” than are men, but those who do study science, technology, engineering, and math are less likely to graduate than their male classmates.

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Together, Parson and Ozaki interviewed eight female students majoring in math or physics to learn more about why women struggle in STEM. From their interviews, the professors learned that many women feel pressure to conform to so-called “masculine” norms.

According to the professors, these masculine norms include “asking good questions,” “capacity for abstract thought and rational thought processes,” “motivation,” the expectation that students would be “independent” thinkers, and a relatively low fear of failure.

“This requirement that the average student asks questions and speaks in class is based on the typical undergraduate man,” they contend.

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Unfortunately for the female students, many of them indicated difficulty embodying these traits, reporting that they tend to ask fewer questions in class than do their male peers, and have noticed that other women in their classes share the same inclination.

“When I think about it, I guess the females rarely ask any questions, or they’ll go and ask the professor like after, or um, if we’re doing homework, and we have questions,” recounted Julie, a junior majoring in physics.

Taking risks was also a problem for female students. Although STEM professors often highlight the importance of students willingness to take risks, many female students expressed reluctance to do so for fear of failure.

Madison, a senior in math, told researchers that her fear of failure definitely had an impact on her academic performance. At the time of the interview, she indicated that she was “taking a class that I dropped last year because I was, like, thinking I could fail it.”

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While the fact that women are less vocal in class was a recurring theme throughout the research, it appears that nothing stops women from talking in class except their own fears. Physics major Olivia, for instance, expressed concerns that “you don’t want to sound stupid.”

These “expectations set according to a masculine definition of the ideal student” ultimately cause female students to experience “challenges measuring up to a masculine ideal,” Parson and Ozaki assert.

“These STEM student ideals are gendered because women are evaluated against measures and characteristics that reflect a male worker,” they explain, further noting that these standards “are built around the idea of an unencumbered male worker, [and] promote an ideal that is very difficult for women students to achieve.”

Further, the professors contend that the time-consuming nature of STEM coursework also inhibits female success, since a tough course load reinforces “the masculine ideal of working an unlimited number of hours based on the unencumbered male body.”

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To fight this, Parson and Ozaki spell out a few recommendations for STEM programs, saying for instance that academic departments should “redefine success by changing expectations,” such as letting women write down questions instead of asking them out-loud. They also recommended that more women are hired, but notably did not mention any concerns over merit.

They also declare that “an important aspect of changing the masculine nature of STEM is diversifying STEM fields,” and suggest that hiring more female faculty members could lead to increased enrollment of female students because “women faculty have been found to increase participation, feelings of inclusion and belonging, and women’s perceptions of identity compatibility.”

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Achieving “a critical mass of women” in STEM, the professors predict, would serve to weaken “the masculine STEM discourses of individualism and competition” while promoting “connectivity and relatedness,” which they believe will help to create the sense of “community” desired by the students they interviewed.

“Improving the chilly climate in STEM fields requires revising the STEM institution from one that is masculine to one that is inclusive for non-men, non-White students,” they conclude.

Campus Reform reached out to Parson and Ozaki for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen