The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

Baseball falls to BCC 7–3 in the ultimate Battle of Bethesda
Boys volleyball falls to Walter Johnson 3–1
MCPS cancels bus tracking pilot app
Whitman hosts first International Night since COVID-19 pandemic
Boys lacrosse annihilates Blake 18–1
Girls lacrosse demolishes Blake 17–2

Girls lacrosse demolishes Blake 17–2

April 21, 2024

“Immediately an outsider”: The gender problem in STEM

When girls are supported and have female mentors, they succeed, and STEM activities can simply be about common passion rather than gender.

Some names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.

Despite comprising nearly 57% of the workforce in America, women account for only around 28% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs. In the past few decades, advocacy groups have worked to close this gap, typically focusing on encouraging young girls to take STEM classes in middle school to get them excited to continue on STEM pathways.

However, this has proved only marginally effective, even in wealthier, well-off school systems like MCPS. In exam participation, girls outnumber boys 2:1 in life science APs, including Biology, Psychology and Environmental Science. But boys outnumber girls 3:1 for Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism and Physics C: Mechanics, and around 2:1 for Physics 1, Microeconomics and Macroeconomics.

Historically, there has always been a gender gap in STEM careers. During World War I and II, women joined the workforce en masse to replace the men serving abroad, with over six million working in factories and others taking roles as trolley conductors, fire wardens and more. Through this, women proved they were just as capable as men at working jobs previously perceived as “masculine,” and it was many women’s first time working in a STEM-oriented job. However, when the men returned home, they reclaimed these jobs, forcing women back into housekeeping and secretarial jobs.

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While women did rejoin the fields they occupied during the war, particularly those related to engineering, mathematics and business, their options were far more limited. Men regained leadership and high-level roles in companies, while women had to start from scratch despite having previously proven their capabilities. 

Even women who secured high-level careers were not guaranteed stability or respect. Societally, women were expected to take time off or quit their jobs when pregnant, whereas men with newborn children were not, leading companies to view female employees as temporary. Many companies fired or refused to promote women who took their maternity leave, with time spent away being an insurmountable detriment to the workplace. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination based on pregnancy, birth and related procedures and conditions. The act still left out guaranteed parental leave, which was eventually achieved in 1993 with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act — providing men and women with the right to 12 unpaid weeks off following birth. Despite these measures, there are still very few female CEOs. Of the top-performing 2,000 companies, only 29 have female CEOs, 19 of whom were appointed after 2002. 

Outside of the office, efforts to elevate women in STEM often revolve around encouraging young girls to explore science fields. Research finds that women entering STEM careers are more likely to have gaps or weaknesses in their STEM education because they dropped out of higher-level classes due to negative peer interactions, a lack of female role models and gender-based stereotypes. Some programs use the theory that more women will succeed in STEM majors and careers if these issues are addressed to guide their actions.

In practice, however, this approach has been mixed. What worked in the life sciences to even out the ratio of women to men in STEM — introducing the subjects at ages and ensuring there are visible female role models — has failed in computer science, engineering and physics. Women often continue to self-select themselves out of math-based sciences, leading some to believe in a biological difference that makes men better at understanding math. Women comprise only 22% and 19% of students receiving Bachelor’s degrees in engineering and physics respectively.

The male-dominant atmosphere creates a perfect storm for the gender gap visible in STEM today and begins during primary and secondary education. At Whitman, girls constitute 46.5% of the school body; however, in upper-level physics classes and the primary STEM club, The Body Electric — a robotics club — they are far outnumbered by their male counterparts.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, there were very few girls on the robotics team, said Whitman alum Leyla Ülkü (’21). For Ülkü, joining the robotics club was an obvious choice; she had loved science since first grade, and her circle of friends was STEM-oriented and planned on joining the club. However, when she became a part of the team, there was a divide between the boys and the girls, she said.

“[The boys] wouldn’t give me work to do sometimes,” Ülkü said. “They would just be not approachable at all; they would yell at me if I asked for things to do.”

While the club’s adult mentors attempted to address blatant sexism and disrespect, many girls still felt like they had a higher level of standard to achieve to gain the respect of their male peers. Alum Hope (’21) joined the team her freshman year and stayed on it throughout her time at Whitman. Despite this long-term commitment, she still felt like she was socially an outsider. Casual conversations often revolved around stereotypical guy topics, and while it might have been easier to learn about cars and sports, she didn’t feel like she should have to do that to be a part of the team, Hope said.

“If you were a female on a team, you were in leadership, otherwise you pretty much weren’t on the team because you weren’t accepted socially,” Hope said. “As a female, you had to be in leadership to gain respect and to get into the social circles.”

These environments highlight the issues that lead girls to drop out of STEM, which creates a feedback loop within these fields and activities. Women and girls are more likely to remain in STEM when they have female role models to look up to. Seeing that another woman could persevere and be available for guidance leads to lower dropout rates. If these potential female mentors aren’t present because they dropped out due to a lack of female visibility, a vicious cycle emerges.

Whitman experienced a similar female absence in robotics after the COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of the 2021-22 school year, there were no female leads and only one girl on the team. Junior Ria Gulati, who was initially uncertain about staying on the team, was the second female member and is now the current programming lead. Gulati took it upon herself to bring more girls onto the team, encouraging others to join during her sophomore year and advertising that the club was gender-inclusive during Clubs Night.

“I saw the disparity and I really wanted to get more growth,” Gulati said. “I tried to recruit more girls, and I’m trying to make the atmosphere less intimidating, especially for them. Last year, we got a bunch of girls to join.”

For girls on the team, standards still feel uneven. Junior Ava Anderson, the integration lead for the team, feels pressured to be perfect, she said.

“As a girl, if you make mistakes, it definitely does not look good for you,” Anderson said. “It makes me feel like it brings you lower than if a guy had made the same mistake.”

Despite these drawbacks, Whitman’s robotics team is making progress in the gender gap. This year, three girls serve as team leads, and more continue to join the club.

Negative STEM environments in high school bleed into higher education, leading women to drop out of STEM degrees in college at a 23% higher rate than their male counterparts. In the long run, however, women perform just as well as men in STEM careers and degrees.

The root cause of the observable gender gap is a lack of support during secondary education. In elementary school, girls are encouraged and excited to take science classes, and in these years, both boys and girls receive equal guided instruction on math and science — there’s no concept of self-selecting out of STEM. Heading into middle and high school, however, the ratio of boys to girls in engineering and physics widens, with girls having fewer female peers to confide in and role models to look up to in STEM classes. When girls are supported and have female mentors, they succeed, and STEM activities can simply be about common passion rather than gender. When she returned to watch a robotics competition last year, a noticeable shift in the team surprised her, Ülkü said.

“It felt like the culture was so much more open and anybody could contribute,” Ülkü said. “Of course there’s definitely still pitfalls, but it’s just interesting how it changed over time. I think it’s definitely changed for the better.”

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Dresden Benke
Dresden Benke, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join The B&W? I wrote fake publications in elementary school, aptly titled The Dresden Press and The Dresden Times, and I figured I should make my journalism career official. What is your favorite song? Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

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