The underrepresentation of women in STEM: Do stereotypes play a role?

Figures from SPIE reveal that just 20 per cent of engineering degrees in the US are awarded to women, and 40 per cent of those women end up leaving the field. Christina Willis, laser scientist at Fibertek, gives her opinion on how stereotypes contribute to these statistics 

As a global community, we are still grappling with the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields. As a woman working in the field of optics, it is a subject which is very close to home for me, and one to which I have dedicated a fair amount of thought. To me, any discussion on women in STEM is incomplete without a careful consideration of the way in which women are often stereotyped. Stereotypes vary widely across cultures, but the idea that women are less capable than men in technical areas is fairly pervasive, and one which needs to be a part of the conversation about women in STEM.

The influence that stereotypes have is very real. The extent of their power was clearly demonstrated in a work by Shih et al. titled Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance1.  It involved an examination of two stereotypes: ‘women are bad at maths’ and ‘Asians are good at maths’. The subjects of the study were a group of exclusively Asian-American women, and each was asked to answer a housing survey. Then, as an apparent after thought, each was also asked to complete a short mathematics exam. There were three different surveys randomly distributed: one with questions that primed the subjects’ female identity (How would you feel about unisex bathrooms in dorms?), one that primed for Asian identity (Would you like to be housed with people of a similar cultural background?), and a neutral control survey which did neither. The amazing thing was the performance on the maths exam was clearly determined by the stereotypes being invoked: the Asian-primed subjects outperformed the control group, and the female-primed subjects under-performed the control group.

This is both an amazing and a saddening result. As a scientist, I find it fascinating that a person’s performance can be so affected – positively or negatively – by internalised stereotypes without them even being explicitly mentioned. As a woman keenly aware of existing sexist stereotypes about who I am and how I should behave, it’s disheartening to think how I, and others, have internalised them without even knowing it. Even though I have striven to reject and disprove sexist stereotypes about my gender, are they still somehow unavoidably ingrained in me? Could I have been a better scientist if I had not been exposed to negative stereotypes about women in my youth?

In some places we may imagine that these negative attitudes towards women are a thing of the past, an outmoded way of thinking long behind us. This is unfortunately not the case. For example, it was legal in the United States for an employer to fire a female employee for becoming pregnant as late as 1978. And the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace did not exist in the US until 1980.  Many more such examples exist in every country. And this is yesterday, or even five minutes ago, in the scope of human history. Though we have come a long way in terms of how women are treated in society, young women growing up today are still confronted with sexist attitudes, both subtlety and explicitly. The fact is that humanity is not as far away as we would like to think from the days when explicit sexism was both legal and acceptable. In many places it still is.

All of this can seem very bleak. It can be tempting to be defeatist about it and throw up one’s hands and say ‘Well, I can’t change society by myself’. But the fact is that society is only the sum of its parts, and you dear reader, are one of those parts. The first thing you can do is look at your own attitudes and behaviours, and question them. Ask yourself how you may treat your female colleagues differently than your male colleagues. For example, I have noticed a tendency of male supervisors to direct more questions to my male counterpart on a project, even if I have been working on the project longer or am more knowledgeable on the subject. According to a recent survey, this sort of sexism is a very common experience for women in tech. The study, titled ‘Elephant in the Valley’ (, found that 88 per cent of the women surveyed have had clients and colleagues address questions to their male peers that should have been addressed to them. More than 200 women were included in the survey, which focused on women with at least 10 years of experience in technical fields, many of them holding positions of power: 25 per cent are at the executive level, 11 per cent are founders, and 11 per cent are in venture capital.

Another instance where I am treated differently from my male colleagues is when I am introduced to a male scientist or engineer – at a conference or elsewhere – and then he asks me what kind of administrative position I hold at my company. I challenge you reader, to try to notice how what you say or do might be reinforcing these negative stereotypes, and how that could be negatively impacting your colleagues.

These sorts of behaviours are a reminder of the stereotype that says that, as a woman, I don’t belong in a laboratory, and that I should go home and leave the technical work to the men. Even when these types of things are done unintentionally, when they come from an otherwise kind and supportive male colleague, it is unwelcoming at best. Dear reader, if you ever have a female colleague come to you with a complaint about this kind of behaviour, please be kind to her and take her seriously. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about these things directly, and it also shows that she believes you care enough to listen to her and to change. Though it is human nature to defend oneself, feedback of this nature is an opportunity to demonstrate your trustworthiness, and to strengthen your working relationships.

In the end, if we can look at a person, male or female, and treat them like an individual and not like a stereotype, we will all be taking a big step forward. No human being fits into a tidy box, and no one is completely described by their gender, colour, or sexual-orientation. But this is exactly what stereotypes do, they serve to confine us to a set of behaviours that we ‘should’ do or be. I am a woman and I enjoy weight lifting and doing my own car maintenance. My husband enjoys shoe shopping and cooking. Am I less a woman and is he less a man for respectively enjoying behaviours that are viewed as typically masculine or feminine? Should either of us have to defend those behaviours because they don’t fit the stereotype assigned to our respective genders? Or should we simply be allowed to be ourselves? Stereotypes, even supposedly positive ones, can trap us and box us in; it’s not just stereotypes about women that we should be trying to eradicate.

The relative minority of women in optics specifically, and STEM in general, is clearly a complex issue with many parameters. I personally am convinced that negative stereotypes about women are an important parameter in that equation, 

and though we have come a long way in eradicating them, we still have a long way to go. The good news is that stereotypes can be fought. And while it may not be easy to confront them when we see them in ourselves and in others, it is an important step towards making our scientific community a better and more inclusive place to work. 


[1] Shih, Margaret, Todd L. Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady. ‘Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance.’ Psychological Science 10.1 (1999): 80-83.

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