Five Major Misconceptions About STEM — And What You Can Do To Combat Them

September 20, 2017

If you haven’t heard from our many, many Facebook posts and tweets, our newest series premiered this month!!! A Balanced Equation is a four-part documentary series about three young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) who take a road trip across the country to talk to the women breaking down barriers in STEM and paving the way for what these fields will look like in the future. We probably say this every time, but…after 15 years, this might be our favorite series yet — go watch!

As we traveled across the country filming this road trip last year, we heard a lot of enthusiasm for encouraging more young women into STEM! …But we also heard a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes floating around out there. Some of this misinformation was from the media, some came from coworkers or peers, and some of it, young women heard from their own teachers and counselors! Insane. So, using the stories of the amazing women we met on this road trip, we decided to debunk five of the most common misconceptions about women in STEM:

 

1. There’s no room for creativity in the STEM fields.

Let’s kick this off with one of the most flabbergasting — yet persistent! — misconceptions about STEM: that science, technology, engineering, and math are fields that don’t allow for creativity. Ahem, WHAT?

The fact is, jobs in STEM fields are all about creativity! From researching new experimental treatments for ulcerative colitis, to developing technology to make virtual reality feel as real as possible, people across the world are using STEM to improve our lives in creative new ways. (And you can hear from the women executing both of those creative ideas in episodes of A Balanced Equation!)

Take explorer/artist/climate change activist Zaria Forman — not only has she used her creative strengths to further her passion for science, but she’s created a brand new job title for herself in the process.

 

2. Careers in STEM fields are lonely; when I think of jobs in STEM, I think of someone coding in a basement, or doing experiments in a lab, alone.

Of course, plenty of STEM jobs provide space for people who want to work alone, but just as in any field, there are opportunities in every kind of work environment! Featured in episode four of A Balanced Equation, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia serves as the director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT — but that doesn’t mean she spends all day in the lab alone. Her lab group is made up of over 30 researchers and students, and they often collaborate with a long list of scientists from outside universities.

And not only is it not lonely work — it’s incredibly important and fulfilling work! Among the things her lab is currently working on: regenerating human livers using organic 3-D printers, and engineering a bacteria that can enter tumors and treat them from the inside. (We’ve put our money on her lab to someday find the end-all cure for cancer.) She also cofounded “Keys to Empowering Youth,” an MIT outreach program that invites middle school-aged girls into MIT’s engineering labs to observe and take part in experiments, sustaining their curiosity in the field at an age when most young women are discouraged from pursuing STEM.

In summary: don’t worry! If the foundation of what you need in a career is collaboration and “working with others,” then there’s definitely a place in STEM for you.

 

3. Putting all this focus on STEM ignores the humanities, which are just as important!!

[Writers speaking here:] We agree that the humanities are just as important!! Good thing you don’t have to abandon one in favor of the other.

In episode one of A Balanced Equation, the road-trippers talk to Dr. Evelynn M. Hammonds, a professor of the history of science and African and African-American studies at Harvard University.

Hammonds was originally interested in physics and engineering (she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Spelman College, a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a master’s degree in physics from MIT, no big deal), but throughout her education, she found herself continually looking around at her classmates and wondering, “Why am I the only woman of color here?”

The scientific process teaches students to follow the threads of those “Why?” questions until new knowledge is uncovered…so that’s exactly what Hammonds did. When midway through a physics Ph.D. program, that persistent “Why am I the only one here?” became louder and more intriguing than any of her coursework, finding the answer became her new life’s work.

She’s just one amazing example of how the skill sets fostered by studying STEM fields can lead to an amazing career in the humanities, and vice versa!

 

4. Women simply aren’t programmed to be as good at STEM as men.

OH, BOY. Well honestly, we’d kind of thought that this stereotype had been put to bed a long time ago, but recent events have proved us wrong!

To anyone out there who believes this, we highly recommend that you stay tuned for episode four of A Balanced Equation, premiering on Thursday, September 28th; in it, we talk to Debbie Sterling about her company GoldieBlox, a line of toys and games specifically designed to encourage girls into engineering.

When Debbie Sterling first came up with the idea for an engineering-centric toy for young girls, higher-ups in the toy industry told her that it could never work, that young girls liked dolls, and simply wouldn’t be interested in building blocks. Sterling (herself a Stanford-educated engineer) didn’t buy it…and when she dug into the research, there were no biological indicators to suggest that young boys were programmed to be better at engineering than young girls. The real problem was that young women didn’t have access to toys that encouraged spatial skills and an interest in engineering — so Sterling decided to change that by developing GoldieBlox! You can hear more details about her research into the subject in episode four of A Balanced Equation.

 
5. This whole “women in STEM” thing is overblown. We’ve nearly reached parity in many fields, and there are actually way *more* women working in the social sciences!

Hrmm. Let us throw some numbers at you real quick:

  • Women make up 48 percent of the workforce, but only hold 24 percent of the jobs in STEM fields.
  • Only 30 percent of the faculty teaching STEM courses in U.S. universities are women.
  • From 1984 to 2014, the number of women receiving computer science degrees actually declined by 19 percent.
  • As of 2017, only 17 percent of tech startups have a female founder. That’s the same percentage of female founders we had in 2012 — that number hasn’t seen growth in five years.
  • And for women of color, some of the above stats are so dismal, they can’t even be measured or reported in whole percentage points.

So while, yes, women have made huge strides in fields like biological sciences — a workforce composed of 46 percent women, heck yeah — we still have a lot of work to do!

Wondering what you can do to start tackling this problem? Many studies have shown that women feel more confident about demonstrating interest in the STEM fields when they see other women succeeding in those fields. That’s why we’ve created two resources to expose young women interested in STEM to more professional role models: our new series A Balanced Equation, and our Women in STEM “Share Your Road” community!



 

And you can help us out: If you — or a young woman in your life — are considering pursuing STEM, you can watch episodes of A Balanced Equation right now to see candid stories of struggle and success in STEM from women all over America, stories that will show any woman that she has what it takes to succeed in STEM! Then check out the advice from more professionals working in STEM fields (aka your new digital mentors!) on our Share Your Road community to see the steps you can start taking if you want to create a career in your favorite STEM field.

Or, if you’re already working in a STEM field, become one of the members of the Share Your Road community and tell your story! By passing along your advice on how you set yourself up for success, turned your interests into an amazing career, and overcame obstacles along the way, you’ll fight misconceptions about women in your field — and encourage young women everywhere along their own paths to STEM.

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