Why Are There So Few Women in Math and Science Professions?

There is a fascinating story on NPR this week about the lack of women in math and science fields that is worth a read.

It explores the reasons that there are more men than women in these fields and the reasons that many women do not stay in these fields. The article lays the blame on women’s awareness of stereotypes regarding their competency in these areas.

The author makes it clear that the problem is not all in women’s heads, but rather lays the blame at the feet of the pervasive messages that women hear on a daily basis about their abilities, or inabilities, in these areas.

I find this fascinating. When I was in middel school, I was told I was bad at two things – OK, maybe 3 things – math, science and art. Whether the people who told me these things recognized that they sent me this messages as a teenager or not, these messages stuck with me over the years; in fact, these messages have stuck with me to this day.

I worked in the field of domestic violence for many years and was always interested in the programs that many shelters have for children who have witnessed domestic violence, where they use art therapy to help children heal and cope with their untenable family situation.

As someone who was told that art was not a personal strength, I always felt more stressed by the idea of this type of therapy than soothed. The messages we are told when we are young stick with us.

The story on NPR seems to confirm this and posits the theory that this is one of the main reasons that women, even women in high level math and science professions, do not stay in those positions.

The story points out a fundamental challenge, in which there are not many women in these fields, and women seem less likely to enter these fields because they do not see themselves represented in these professions.

Quite a chicken and the egg conundrum.

What do you think? Have you, or your children, had any personal experiences with being told that you were not good at something? Have you found ways to counter these messages that work for you? Do you have any ideas about how more women could be encouraged to enter the fields of math and science? Or do you think that it is not really a problem to have this field so dominated by men?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading.




Filed under Business, Career Planning, Culture, Economy, Education, equality, Ethics, Health, Parenting, Policy, Politcs, Relationships, Role of Government, social pressures, Stereotypes, Technology, Women, Youth Leadership

51 responses to “Why Are There So Few Women in Math and Science Professions?

  1. thanks for sharing your thoughts… couldn’t agree more,… I myself, have similar questions/concerns… here’s something I wrote a while back, about the same theme…


    • Great post yourself! Thanks so much for sharing it here. This is a complex topic and I really appreciate hearing about the challenges from a teacher’s perspective. Thanks for taking the time to weigh in!

  2. I don’t think it is chicken/egg. It’s simply conditioning. If you tell people something often enough, if you continue to repeat stereotypes, people will come to believe what they hear. The message here is clear: we need to stop telling young girls they “can’t” do something — or young boys for that matter. I have worked with a great many young people who do amazing things, things they never knew they were capable of. The only way to know what a person can do is to wait and see. And that goes for all young people. But the article is certainly right: girls have been told for generations they can’t “do” math and science, to which I say B.S.

  3. P.S. And clearly you can do art! So there! 🙂

  4. Susan Jacoby wrote an interesting essay on why teenage girls give up on math. She calls it a self-inflicted female disability and suggests that girls don’t want to be typed as brains, don’t want to lose male attention, and are intimidated by math and science classes because they are mostly made up of males. It is “intruding” on male turf. I think she has a point that we sometimes limit ourselves for really stupid reasons.

    • Boo. That’s terrible. And sadly, probably insightful. That’s why I sometimes think I would like to teach 6th grade girls. To help them realize how cool it is to be competent!! Thanks for the comment!

    • Susan Jacoby is one sharp lady! (Sorry to butt in).

      • I love when you butt in! It keeps the conversation going, which is the whole point! 🙂

      • PS, I think Emily J is also one sharp lady, so you should check out her blog if you haven’t already!!

      • I’ve been thinking about your comment all afternoon. I can’t tell if you think she’s sharp because she seems to be blaming women for all of their own problems rather than the old standby complaint of men being the problem. Anyway, Jacoby does address and acknowledge cultural influences, which cannot be ignored, but I tend to agree with her assessment of it being self-inflicted. But, would girls inflict it if they weren’t bombarded by unrealistic media images that tend to push the idea that it is most important to be beautiful and sexy rather than smart and brainy? I’m glad you butt in too because it made me think!

        • I am sure that Hugh is not downplaying the cultural aspects here. He is much too thoughtful for that. It does seem that women internalize the messages – especially negative messages we receive – more than men. So, while I wouldn’t place the blame here on women, I do think that we need to help build up young girls’ confidence in their abilities. Thanks to both of you for keeping the thoughtful dialogue going.

  5. Maybe it is just the nature of the field of study. There are many areas of health care that have greater numbers of women. I am bad at math. No one ever told me that. Others’ encouragement/expectations did help me push farther than I may have on my own. A seventh grade English teacher told a small group of us that she decided not to get a PhD because her adviser told her that girls with PhDs have a hard time finding a man to marry. Sounds revolting, but I wonder how much truth is in it. (or at least was, lets say, 25 years ago).

  6. I really am no good at math and science! And I’m ok with that 🙂

  7. It’s a good question. Personally, I have an engineering degree from many, many years ago and haven’t used it directly for a long time. When I graduated in 1984, there weren’t many women in engineering classes, and I expected that would change over time, but it doesn’t seem to have happened. I would say that the engineers and scientists that I have known don’t care whether a colleague is a man or woman as long as they are competent. I do think there is a dumming down of women in America for cultural reasons, but I’m not sure that is the main reason for the disparity. It seems possible to me that men and women may have different affinities.

    • Wow, an engineer who writes about enchantment – you are such a bada–! 😉 You may be right about the different affinities, but it seems to be more than just that to me. It also seems to have to do with the messages we receive when we are young and the lack of role models. Very complex topic, but thanks so much for sharing your perspective!

  8. As a practicing scientist, I can attest that this problem is complex. First, not all fields are male dominated. I don’t have the stats, but my impression is that public health and epidemiology are female dominated, for example, even though the latter is heavily quantitative.

    Second, most academic research positions are highly stressful and insecure. I was recently talking with the editor of a major journal, and he noted that women are over-represented as editors of major journals, probably because this is a more stable career alternative to academia. He thus thinks that we could increase women’s ranks in academic science by increasing the stability of the positions (among many benefits to increasing stability). Of course, this supposes that women value secure jobs more than men, and I think this is the case.

    Third, there are real self-esteem issues for girls/young women going into these fields, and there is real bias on the part of men (even when not particularly conscious). My guess is that about 30% of men have very little bias against women, 60% have subtle biases they are unaware of, and 10% are outright sexist. I’d add that women can actually be sexist against other women too, whether or not they mean to be.

    Only very rarely is the bias of the sort that is blatant or obvious, but the accumulation of many little things adds up. However, I don’t think sexism by males is worse in math and science than, say literature (it’s present in literature too), so I think the main factors are the others listes.

    Fourth, ambition is really critical to rise through the ranks in math and science, and while some women are ambitious, I think men are generally more so. It is hard to balance career and family, and many women drop out for their families; fewer men do so. This could be helped by decreasing the competitive environment.

    However, I’d add a last question: many fields have different numbers of men and women. There are more female interpreters, nurses, and (I think) doctors. There are more male policemen and construction workers. I think women should have equal access to any career they want, but I am not sure why we always single out the discrepancy in math and science as being the biggest problem.

    • Great points! And I know from personal experience that you are right about public health. I think the reason that there is more emphasis on the lack of women in these fields is because math and science can be such a foundation for a number of other professions and fields and if girls are steered away from these fields at a young age, it can really limit their future opportunities. But you raise a good point and I would be interested to hear thoughts from others.

      • I think Alan’s main point is spot on. It’s not about math and science, it’s about stereotypical thinking. We all need to work on this. Even old Plato thought women could be philosopher kings! We need to take this notion seriously.

  9. Too bad more females don’t get more out of math and science. It’s nothing wrong with our brains, I think we look at the subject differently than the way boys do. Perhaps we don’t like the exactness (?..is that a word?) of those subjects.

  10. I’m bad at math. I don’t seem to have an affinity for science, either. I think part of the reason is that I genuinely don’t care for these topics (it’s not that I don’t care, per se, it’s just that I’d rather do something else). The other reason is that I developed an aversion to them from a very young age because it was hard for me to grasp the concepts in a concrete manner. I studied hard (my parents got upset at anything less than an A), but it wasn’t easy for me. What’s worse is that I couldn’t seem to explain sometimes why I didn’t “get it.” This posed a problem to the teacher. I didn’t want to seem “dumb” by having to ask over and over again, so I left it alone, decided to take only the required math and science courses, and prayed that they didn’t require calculus.

    I do think that women and girls get messages (subtle and not so subtle) that math and science are not for them. I also think that some of us learn concepts differently. And yes, there are those stereotypes that need to be shattered and we should encourage all men and women to follow their hearts and heads~~ whether that leads to math, science . . . or other. 🙂

  11. Good post and discussion. I think math is the great equalizer. Gender, ethnic or racial bias can all be overcome by being good at math or science. Children need to know we use math everyday and we all need to do be somewhat proficient. I do see things changing as if you look at almost every college demographics, the significant majority has a greater than 50% female population. I caught the very end of Bill Moyers’ show last night and he had on a female physicist from India. We need to give voices and opportunity to women like her to show the path forward.

    • I think you have really hit on something here old fart! That is why I wrote that I had been told that I Was bad at two things – really, I was told I was bad at math and art, but if you have problems with math, science will be a challenge. And I think I could have liked science if not for the math! I would get Cs on all my chemistry exams because 30% of the test was math. That even continued in my economics classes in college. It’s a shame…I think the focus should be stronger on math and then that will give more grls the confidence to excel in science. There should be some creative teaching strategies to make this work. Thanks for your thoughtful response. You really nailed it, as usual.

  12. When I was a kid, I went to work with my step-father for a quick visit. We stood in front of his drafting table and he explained his occupation to me. I thought what I was seeing was really beautiful and loved the lines and the paper, the smell in the room, the tools need for the job. (and all the while I had been thinking that I wanted to be an archaeologist) I told him that I wanted to be a draftsman when I grew up. “Girls don’t do that,” he said. Circa 1960-1961, I think.

    • Repeat that story countless times and you can readily understand why girls think they can’t “do math and science.” Sad.

      • Exactly! So many women have these stories to tell. And I believe that many women may not remember the exact moment they were told these things, and I am positive that teachers don’t remember telling them, but the messages have been clear. I hope this is changing for girls now. Female engineers and scientists are my (s)heroes!!

    • Ugh…what a shame. At least that has changed. The doors are more open now, we just have to give more girls the confidence to walk through them!

  13. Most professions face the same problem. Even in advertising, it’s a man’s world. It’s especially apparent in Math & Science and I support the notion that this is largely because of mental conditioning. It’s only natural that we shun things we’re told we’re weak at. We become less receptive to it even if we’re given new strategies to counter such problems, resulting in a less-than-optimal result i.e. we appear less adept at what we thought we’re weak at, and then there’s some confirmation bias that makes us decide we’re not good at it. Eventually we stop trying. Math and science probably requires a lot more theory and this makes it harder to overcome.

    • Absolutely. I had hoped that this had gotten better since I was a child in the 70s, and perhaps it has gotten a little better, but it seems that we still have a ways to go. Thanks so much for your comment!

  14. I’m happy to say, my daughter did not inherit my Math Dyslexia, although I did love the sciences in high school. I guess that’s why she wants to teach math & Science in high schools. That’s her goal, anyway. With her September wedding two years ago and the birth of her first baby one year ago, that goal may change to becoming a full-time mom. This might be another reason why there aren’t as many women in these fields.

    • Yay! I love to hear that about your daughter. I am hoping that this is changing with time and your daughter sounds like she did not fall into the trap of thinking she was bad at math and science. That says a lot about your parenting as well, so congrats! And no question – the family dynamics change the professional dynamics substantially, which we have discussed here at length. Thanks for your thougtful comment. Good to see you! 🙂

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