Women in STEM: Facts and Myths

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Women’s level of participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields varies—it is highest in psychology, where women account for 70% or more of the graduates at each degree level. Women’s participation is also relatively high in biosciences and social sciences (except for economics). The proportion of women is lowest in engineering, computer sciences, and physics.

A study published last month (October 2016) points out three factors most likely to explain the lower representation of women in engineering, computer science, and physics, when compared to other stem fields. The three factors are a lack of pre-college experience (lack of sufficient early experience with engineering, computer science, and physics), gender gaps in belief about one’s abilities (gender gaps in self-efficacy), and a masculine culture that discourages women from participating (masculine culture that signals a lower sense of belonging to women than men).

Now, a new report from the Office of the Chief Scientist, Australian Government, confirms many of these findings, and challenges misconceptions about women working in STEM fields. Thus, it further advances our understanding of why women are underrepresented in some of these fields. The report (Busting myths about women in STEM) focuses on mathematics, physics, engineering, and information and communication technology. The report not only identifies four myths about women in STEM, but also debunks these myths by providing facts. So, what are the four myths, and what are the facts that debunk these myths?

Myth # 1: Girls are bad at maths. Fact: There is no gender difference in mathematics ability. However, differing societal expectations for male and female students in many countries result in vastly different experiences of learning, levels of confidence in personal ability, and performance in international benchmarking tests.

Myth # 2: Most women are disinterested in careers in engineering, physics and information and communication technology. Fact: Women’s participation in STEM increases in inclusive cultural environments. A conducive cultural environment—where there is an expectation that girls will become successful in STEM—improves participation.

Myth # 3: The gender pay gap doesn’t exist. Fact: Women in STEM earn less than their male colleagues. The existence of a gender pay gap across all fields is supported by strong evidence. This is true for both full-time and part-time workers, and for women with, and without children. Whilst having children impacts female income, gender effects are more significant. The effects of motherhood don’t explain why nearly twice as many men earn in the top income bracket compared with women without children, regardless of qualification level.

Myth # 4: The battle against sexism in science has been won. Fact: While there have been improvements in the treatment of women in science, there is still a long way to go. There are strong systemic deterrents to women in scientific research, including a lack of career prospects, job insecurity from one-year (or shorter) contracts, and the impact of leave and part-time work on their careers. Unconscious bias also hinders women’s employment in STEM.

The report concludes that there is nothing inevitable about gender inequality in STEM. Women are not inherently less capable or less interested in STEM than men, and the problem of gender imbalance is not impossible to solve. Debunking the myths and spreading the facts is a good starting point. However, there is the need for a multi-faceted approach across all levels of education and in the workforce. One of the major challenges is the persistence of systemic biases, which limit the range of career options that many women aspire to. Divergent attitudes formed by girls and boys in childhood—such as confidence in their abilities to apply mathematics to problem solving—have far reaching implications for the opportunities available to them in adulthood.

In addition, the report points outs that one of the next steps should foster a culture where senior leaders sponsor young women. Sponsors actively advocate for their protégé’s career advancement and are distinct from mentors, who instead provide psychological support and career advice. Sponsorship accelerates career advancements and pay increases, and helps to address female representation at senior levels.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. The myth that the fight for gender equality has been one and it’s over is not true just as the article stated. That is just like people saying that racism ceased to exist because Obama is in office. We, as human beings, have made great strides toward equality for all that fight is not over. The fact that so many people believe that, only stifles progress.

    Many women are interested in STEM but do not have the support system in place to ensure that they stay in STEM. That is why it is important for both men and women to mentor people interested in those fields. And because most people in senior positions in STEM fields are men, mention put forth an effort to nurture those future women scientists.

  2. I find the one myth about women not being interested in STEM fields. I am surrounded by women who are pursuing engineering, nursing, medical school, and more! I can say that our generation is a bit more advanced in the sense that women have more “freedom” to pursue any career. We still face the issue of under representation in these fields. And the idea that sexism has been extinguished in the science field is a funny story. We have so much more work to do to reach true gender equality.

  3. I love this myths article. I look at these myths and it makes me frustrated and makes me ask myself do people still truly believe these myths. Yes! Why is this so despite the passing on of these facts? For example: boys and girls both believe that girls are innately worse at math and science. I personally think and know this is not true, however, I have a general idea on how this might occur. I think girls end up living a self-fulfilling prophecy. They hear that they shouldn’t take math and science, they hear they are probably bad at it, they hear guys did better on the test as a whole, and they hear so many more negative things. It becomes instilled in them, unfortunately. Guys, on the other end, feel like they have no choice but to be great. Also, in my generation, at least, it was not cute to be smart in primary and middle school in the math and sciences, where you get the foundation for pursuing such a career. Girls are socialized to believe that being cute, just the right amount of smart, and attractive are the most important things to be in elementary school. I say this to say, this is a complicated problem. The myth is not a myth, but a stereotype. In order, for it to be deconstructed, these problems and many more would have to be addressed. It seems almost impossible but there is a way. We just need to think of it.

    • I agree with you, Mohails, that each gender often ends up living up to the stereotypes that society sets out for them. Addressing the stereotypes as you said could be a part of the solution, but I wonder what would have to happen to affect a uniform, drastic shift in the number of women in STEM fields? I know for me adhering to stereotypes never yielded the results they promised. Society failed to reinforce to me these messages that girls are just supposed to look pretty and not be too smart or ambitious. Focusing on looking cute and being attractive didn’t make boys like me, but in my school work, I received affirmation and being called “smart” communicated to me “you can be successful. You are good at this!” So I guess it depends on the individual and which messages have been reinforced to that person early on, but I also think that our society is changing in the messages it is sending to girls and women.

      It seems to me that the media is changing how it portrays intelligence and ambition in women and that this emerging image will be key in encouraging women to dream in fields in which they are underrepresented. As an analogy, I learned on a segment from the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week called “How Jaws Changed the World” that the movie “Jaws” sparked a hypersensitivity to and fascination with sharks in our society that we didn’t have before. The segment said that the oceanographer character inspired a spike in the numbers of students majoring in and studying marine science and even an increase in the number of universities offering marine science programs. That shows the power of the media and I wonder if recent movies like Hidden Figures could have a similar effect on the number of women in STEM professions as they see women like this portrayed as heroes.

      The Shark Week segment I referenced can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-_xXEtl9ek

  4. Overall, I feel that these myths are used to shut women up about injustices that occur within working environments to justify that there is nothing else that needs to be done because the issues were addressed. But, in reality, the actual issue was not resolved because then it would leave men accountable, the business, institution, or company responsible for not being inclusive of all genders, ages, and colors. Therefore, when work settings are being framed to society that change has occurred why would anyone know or care to know if there was an issue arising that involves the continuing cycle of oppression of women in the workplace. So, I believe men and women already know that women are not excelling within the workplace as men and no one cares enough to make it their concern because they feel as if that is not their responsibility. Furthermore, most of the men that are working have families and wives that work and witness their wives not succeeding to their potential because they are women and choose not to make it their concern because no one else is concern about women except for women. Therefore, I believe more men need to stand up because we as women do enough talking for ourselves but aren’t being heard unless men choose to listen and take what is being said into consideration where the action is put in place to change what is occurring in the workplace.

  5. I can’t wait for the day when women are adequately represented in STEM. I hope that I can see this day in my lifetime. In fact, I am sure that I will see this day in my lifetime. We have reached a stage where more women are being encouraged to pursue the STEM field. I am a woman who fits into many of the above categories. I told myself that I wasn’t good at math, I didn’t have extensive knowledge in the field I wanted to study, and I often put myself down if an aspiration was “too hard”. Needless to say, I am a completely different person now. However, if I hadn’t gone into chemistry because it was too hard then I would have always regretted the decision. It is clear that sexism in science has not yet been overcome. There have been times where I have been made to feel lesser than, in terms of intelligence, my freshman year if I asked a male counter-part one too many questions.

    • I can relate to your comment, Samarah. When I began working on my neuroscience degree, the first course I took was Principles of Chemistry and it was extremely discouraging. I struggled in this course, almost dropped it and thought, how will I succeed in neuroscience if can’t do well in chemistry? However, I decided that I too would regret the decision if I quit, so I hung in there and I’m glad I did because now I have learned how to excel in STEM courses and find succeeding in them very rewarding. However, along the way, I’ve realized everyone in science eventually finds their niche, and that we (even men) can’t be experts in every sub field. I think we just have to do our best not to internalize or take any condescending tones or statements personal (for the sake of our mental health) and remember how resilient we are to have made it this far. Increasing the representation of women in STEM starts with us, so we have to stay strong so we can show women even younger than us that they can make it in these fields too.

  6. It’s always interesting to see it be mentioned that the fields of psychology and sociology are largely dominated by women…even though when you look at the fields from an academic standpoint, the higher you go in the university, the the more and more women are excluded from top ranking positions. Which is interesting because, as mentioned, women account for 70+% of the graduates at each degree level. To me, there must be some sort of gender bias present if this is the case.

    Moving away from social sciences, stereotype threat is thriving in more male-dominated fields. First and foremost, I believe our binary gender system has disadvantaged girls from the get-go because we are not socialized to excel in spatial abilities and things of that nature. I feel as if this definitely hurts us because we are not purposefully exposed to these types of things unless we make a conscious effort to dive into math, engineering, computer sciences, etc. There have been countless studies that have shown that if gender is salient in testing environments, then women are going to perform poorly compared to their male counterparts. The same can be seen for men when it comes to more stereotypical feminine tasks. I’m not at all shocked that a myth would be that women are disinterested in these fields since our society (that relies heavily on the strict gender binary) almost unknowingly sets us up to be interested in more nurturing positions.

    • That’s an important point about women excluded from top-ranking positions, even in typically female fields, and it makes me wonder why. It might be a combination of things, in addition to limiting the hiring of women. Maybe the age of the candidates has something to do with it? Typically high-ranking academic positions are occupied by older professors with a lot of experience. Women tend to drop out of work more often as they get older. And in earlier generations, those typically female fields were once dominated by men, as all fields were. So the point you made could be a result of the fact that most “experts” in academic fields used to be men; and even if more women are getting degrees, they might be leaning out over the course of their career. Just speculating here.

  7. Jenna made a great point that more children will become more involved in technology because of increasing exposure to it – particularly with coding because, as you mentioned, it’s being introduced in schools.

    However, I don’t think that lack of exposure is the biggest hindrance to women in science. Women have and probably will continue to avoid fields that men are stereotypically “better” at. These beliefs are intrinsically linked to stereotypes about the personalities of men and women: that men are more analytical and women are more emotional. The largest presence of women in science are in fields associated with helping others – psychology, biosciences and social sciences – because women are expected to be communal and helpful.

    “Male” fields, on the other hand, are more competitive, isolating, and considered more intellectually challenging. As discussed in Lean In, men are expected to match these characteristics, but women often receive backlash when they do.

    On the other hand, men are often discouraged from entering the “soft” sciences. It’s important that men and women are taught that to pursue where their talents lie, regardless of gender – and we need to personally challenge those expectations within ourselves.

    • As a Computer Science Major I agree that the lack of exposure is not the biggest hindrance for women pursuing STEM careers. While it is true that many high schools, and some middle schools, are introducing coding to their students I believe the real problem for women comes when they get to college. I was not fortunate enough to have coding experience before I came to college and as a result the Principles of Programming course freshman year was quite intimidating. I think the biggest hindrance to women in my field is lack of male support at the college level. As a woman who codes you have to prove you know what you are doing before the guys even consider listening to you. In class they would discuss the homework and projects with each other but anytime a female, myself included, asked a question they rarely chose to acknowledge it. As a result of this out of the 7 women who started with me at the beginning of the semester 4 dropped the class and changes majors before the midterm and 1 dropped shortly after, only 2 of us finished the intro class. Only after I worked hard to prove I knew what I was doing did the male students choose to help me. Yes, women are exposed to code and yes they start but the bigger question is do they finish. Computer Science it is still a male dominated field and if they chose to box us out they can. I think it is important that they are encouraged at the college level to include women because if they don’t they could easily carry that attitude into their careers making the gap harder to close.

    • I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree that lack of exposure is not the greatest hinderance for women in science, but it is a big one. I think about all of the toys, television shows, advertisements aimed towards young girls, and I rarely see the sciences being aimed at girls. Growing up with adults praising boys on their math and scientific abilities more than they did girls, and praising girls on their artistic and social abilities only underlines the issue. Girls must be encouraged from a young age that they are capable of anything, and shown that science is just as much fun as art. The two can be combined, which is something I never knew until college. Our education system does a terrible job connecting all the subjects we teach to our children, but I believe that if we can unify these subjects more, children (girls especially) will find a new confidence in their ability to take knowledge and skills from one aspect of school and apply it to another.

  8. I am actually optimistic for representation of women in these fields, especially computer science. Sure, right now, the numbers of women in this field and similar fields are low, but as my generation and the children now grow up, I believe this will drastically change. I did not grow up with iPhone’s and laptops, the iPhone came out when I began high school. But the children growing up now are completely surrounded by technology from birth, and I believe are even learning to code in (some) schools?! I also know that around Atlanta, and other major cities across the U.S., many groups are forming for women who code. Being surrounded by technology is, I think, a way that the playing field is being leveled already. The argument that women do not have as much experience working with computers as men will soon be completely invalid. Also, with more young women learning skills like coding, I believe soon there will be too many talented women for companies and graduate programs to ignore. However, in order to address the pay gap, these young women must also be taught to negotiate!

    • @ Jenna Harris

      I would like to further the conversation on teaching women how to negotiate. Men and women both are never really taught how to negotiate business dealings and pay, unless maybe you were a business major. I do not know anything about business majors, and if they have negotiation courses that are offered or required, but other fields do not have this. I think that all majors should provide and require basic business practice and negotiation courses for their students. It should serve as a core credit because although it does not necessarily fit their major, it fits real life experience that we need to be well rehearsed in. It is almost as if we are set up to fail because no one ever teaches us these direly important skills. It would be neat though if these courses were tailored to each major, and provided mock experiences/interviews that practiced these skills. Do you guys think this would be beneficial and a reachable solution?

  9. The paper reviewed is a much-needed paper that not only provides the myths but explains, with references, why they are false. The biggest issue with the feminist movement today is that many people believe it to already have been achieved, with that moment being the point women got the right to vote. People fail to realize that the fight began at that point and that the fight for women’s rights now heavily occupy the workforce. One of the main examples used for this argument was mentioned in the report (http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/OCS-paper-13.pdf) which explained the test of submitting a resume without a name on it and seeing how when associated with a man’s name, it received more highers than when associated with a woman’s. I believe this is the biggest foundation for women inequality in the work field. With everyone on the same page understanding and knowing there is more to be fought in this area, they would see the disparities in the wages between men and women and in the capabilities of women in STEM fields. This begins with the ones already in high positions, women and men alike. These individuals need to fight to create change, providing programs, mentorship, and sponsorship for women at all levels in their career. They also need to start by removing gender influences on hiring, promotions, and roles, giving fair chances to both genders. Once the awareness and the acceptance are there, the “battle against sexism” can move forward to bring about change and improvements.

    • I completely agree with your comment Tamryn. The gender influences found in hiring, promotions, and roles hinders not only the success of women but the overall success of companies and organizations. If opportunities were given solely on merit, then the exceillence of the work done and goals met would be greater. I also think that having more networking opportunities between executives already advocating for women’s rights and undergraduates full of energy and passion.There still is a lot of work to be done, but having more programs that foster relationships and mentorships could encourage the current and future generations in STEM fields and other fields as well.

  10. I truly believe that stereotypes formed against women plays a major role in the successful outcomes and the attempt of trying to pursue a job in engineering, IT, and physics. But, I also believe that there is a problem in the inside of the business as well. In other words, the few women that are in those positions should make an effort to make more positions available for women as well. We need to rid this mindset of there only being room for one or that they’ll easily be replaced and we’ll see growth in those fields as well. Moreover, I believe the gender pay gap has a major effect on what women decide to do as far as career options as well. Due to the functionality of the world today and always, money moves mountains. And for someone who is always in a bind between doing what you love for less or doing something you have the skills for but aren’t passionate about for more, most will choose the latter.

    • You make some great points, Dej. Gender stereotypes certainly play a role in the fields that women choose to pursue as a career path. This made me think of a study when young girls and boys took identical math tests, and the simple act of marking their gender made girls underperform. When they did not mark their gender before taking the test, their scores were similar. When they had to check their gender, though, it was as if girls were reminded that they weren’t supposed to be good at math, and they underperformed. I also agree with your point that women need to make room for other women to rise to the top as well. This will help us make strides towards equality in leadership positions and diversify the positions of power.

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