4 Challenges Women In Science Continue To Face

Part 4 of our "Women In Science" series.

March is Women's History Month, and we at A Plus are excited to bring you a four-part series honoring women who have made incredible contributions to scientific discovery and pushed the boundaries of human knowledge.

It's no secret that women have been disenfranchised throughout history, particularly when it comes to the contributions they have made. Unfortunately, women in science continue to have an incredibly difficult time being treated fairly because of the unfair system.

Yes, there is progress being made, but these are the top four battles women in science continue to fight:

1. Stereotypes that girls don't belong in STEM fields start young.

The stereotype that girls aren't good at math or science begins young. 

There's a tired trope in romantic comedies where the smart, shy girl never gets the guy until she ditches her glasses (which she needs in order to see, mind you), and abandons her books and interests. It's a terrible message, yet unfortunately, it echoes real life in a big way. 

Younger girls are every bit as interested in math and science as boys. As they continue their educations, girls are often told by parents, teachers, and the media that STEM is for boys — a lie they eventually start believing around the time they hit middle school.

Make no mistake — math and science are difficult, but gender doesn't have any bearing on how difficult they actually are. In fact, studies have shown that girls generally perform better in these classes than boys, yet they aren't usually encouraged to pursue STEM like their male peers. This causes girls to lose their confidence and they ultimately give it up.

We need to stop actively discouraging girls from following their talents and passions, and encourage those who are interested in STEM to stay involved.

2. Gender bias continues to affect women who do go into STEM fields.

The stereotype that science isn't for girls can sometimes morph into something uglier: outright bias that impacts their education and careers. This isn't subjective, there is evidence to prove it happens.

Scientists at Yale made a startling discovery in 2012 when they sent out more than 100 employment applications for a research laboratory manager. All of the résumés — including experience and education — were identical, except for one key difference: the name at the top. Half had a female name, the other had a male name. Applications with a male name were viewed as more hireable, better mentor material, and more competent. Men were also offered salaries more than 12 percent higher than the women.

Researchers in Switzerland also found that younger physics teachers tend to grade girls more harshly than boys. Nearly 800 teachers in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany were asked to grade a made-up test in which the student only earned partial credit. The tests were all identical except for the gender of the student, just like the résumé experiment. The female students received significantly lower grades.

Female coders are also judged more harshly than males. A study found that code written by women on the open source site GitHub was more likely to be accepted than men's, just as long as nobody knew it was done by a girl. When the gender was identified as female, they were much more likely to be rejected. 

3. Sexual harassment is common. So is covering it up.

Sexual harassment has been a dirty little secret in science for years, but there were some big strides made in 2015 to calling it out and putting an end to it. 

It was recently discovered that 66 percent of female scientists reported experiencing some form sexual harassment while performing fieldwork ranging from inappropriate comments to actual unwanted physical contact. The men committing these acts were overwhelmingly in a position of power.

This behavior continues because the same study found that women are three times more likely to stay silent than report it. While this could have something to do with not being familiar with the proper channels to report such behavior (if any exist at all), but for the most part, it is a fear their careers will be in jeopardy by calling out prominent researchers in their field. 

Even when things are reported, some universities don't take appropriate action in order to save face. Public outcry pressured astronomer Geoff Marcy into resigning from Berkeley in the fall of 2015 after public outcry, but the school itself didn't dole out any punishment even though accusations against him spanned a decade. Some professors accept positions at other schools after being reported, leaving their sullied record behind with no consequences.

There is still a lot of work to do with making sure these perpetrators are punished correctly, but the female students and researchers need to know they will be believed and supported if they come forward.

4. Girls can't be what they can't see.

When women have a difficult time getting into STEM or staying in it, younger women are less likely to see themselves in those positions.

In 1970, only 7 percent of people working in STEM fields were women. There have been many efforts in recent years to grow this number and they do seem to be working. In 2011, 25 percent of those in STEM careers were women, but there is still room for improvement. 

Out of the women who do STEM research, they are more likely to go into the private sector than stay in academia, so female students who want to pursue science are less likely to be taught or mentored by a woman. Women are also underrepresented on panels and at professional conferences that are crucial for public outreach and connecting with younger researchers. 

Female scientists may currently face an uphill battle in almost every aspect of their careers, but the more the public is aware of these issues, the more can be done to make things better. We owe it to every single woman who was ever talked out of her dreams to make it better.

Check out our complete Women In Science series: