A Feminist Myth?: Recruiting Women into STEM

Image credit: Bermix Studio via Unsplash.

It is well known that there are fewer women than men choosing careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM). In fact, in 2019, women made up only 24% of the STEM workforce, and only 10% of engineering workers. A career in this sector seems ideal; it's well paying with job security. The question is, then, why aren’t women already choosing a career in this field, and why is there now a drive to recruit them into it?

STEM industries are currently facing a shortage of workers, so much so that in 2018 there was a shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers in this sector. The STEM sector is essential for advancement and is thus hugely important for the country’s economy. The shortage of workers is estimated to be costing £1.5 billion, and there is little sign of the number of workers increasing in the near future, which is a problem, particularly with the growing importance of technology. In a capitalist society reliant on STEM industries, it’s vital that this issue be resolved quickly to ensure the future prosperity of the economy.

The shortage of women workers, and the overall shortage of workers in general, lead us to come to one solution: more women need to be recruited into STEM. So, it’s no surprise that there are countless initiatives aimed to inspire more women to choose a career in STEM, many in the form of encouraging school- or college-aged girls to make a change and defeat stereotypes by choosing a career in a male-dominated industry. All this is done under the guise of feminism; the idea that in choosing a career where you will always be the minority you become powerful, independent, a true feminist.

As a girl who achieved good grades in STEM subjects at school, I was the target of wave after wave of messages describing a perfectly packaged career where I would get to do a subject that I excelled in, earn a very good salary and break down barriers of gender-based oppression in society. And whilst I felt no desire to choose this career path, I was desperate to have my intelligence recognised - a feeling that drives many to choose a career in STEM.

The feminist narrative of breaking down society’s barriers and pioneering roles for women is an easy one to create in these circumstances, but many of these narratives forget to look at one key aspect: the reasons why women aren’t already choosing careers in STEM. The failure of many to truly analyse this raises the question of who is really benefiting from the recruitment of women into STEM?

The fact is, the attempted destruction of the patriarchy under capitalism liberates women from stereotypes and oppression only when they serve a useful purpose to capitalism, an issue that goes back to the suffrage movement. It's undeniable that women’s contribution to the war effort was a key factor in women receiving the right to vote. In order to gain a basic right, they had to prove that they could serve a purpose to capitalism - otherwise they were deemed as less worthy.  This intense recruitment of women into STEM, the offering of new opportunities for women who have faced gender discrimination in male-dominated industries, is something that should have happened a very long time ago, and its coincision with the shortage of STEM workers leaves many questions regarding the motivations of those who are promoting STEM initiatives to women.

Whilst these initiatives have been shown to have had a small positive impact on the number of women in STEM over the last five years, progress is slow and at times completely stagnant. With countless websites, articles and other resources being solely dedicated to recruiting women into this industry and destroying the misogyny that exists within it, there is clearly a deeper reason as to why women are choosing not to follow this career path.

It’s a complex issue, with many factors, which becomes even more surprising when we see that girls outperform boys in STEM subjects at school. As such, we can rule out the possibility that girls avoid STEM because they are underachieving in these subjects. The truth may lie in the fact that boys typically perform significantly better in STEM subjects than non-STEM subjects, whilst girls only perform slightly better in STEM subjects than non-STEM subjects. The difference between achievement in STEM subjects and non-STEM subjects can be described as the STEM advantage, and the difference in this advantage between girls and boys is essential to understanding the reasons girls don’t choose careers in STEM. Girls are given the choice between a STEM career and a non-STEM career, whereas boys have, on average, less choice.

Too often, people assume that girls avoid STEM out of a fear of it being challenging, or feeling as though their place in these industries isn’t valid, but that’s clearly not the case here. Aside from the obvious shortage of workers, we have to ask why this narrative is being spun to encourage girls into STEM. The truth is, the people who are putting out these messages, who create initiatives to encourage women into STEM truly believe that they are helping women into a better career path that was previously closed off to them. Although this narrative clearly lacks an understanding of the true reasons for women not choosing STEM, this oversight can also be explained. People truly believe that careers in STEM are a great opportunity for women.

We have a tendency to put male-dominated industries on a pedestal, and hold a belief that if men are leading these industries then they must be intellectual, difficult, and worthy of appreciation; a belief system that stems from centuries of misogyny. Female-dominated industries, such as education are held to a much lower standard, and are much less respected. Female dominated careers generally pay less, and it's also shown that as a career becomes more dominated by women, the pay decreases, as the work value decreases. This broadens the issue even further, and really questions what we actually value about STEM sectors. Do we truly value STEM careers for how they can improve our society, or do we just value the men that have those careers?

In choosing a career, a key factor is the level of enjoyment that comes from that path. It stands that both men and women would also rather follow a career in non-STEM subjects, but men often don’t because they perform better in STEM subjects. We blame women’s decision to avoid STEM careers on a lack of equal opportunities, leading to men having an unfair advantage in this field, and whilst it is true that gender discrimination is still rife in this area, along with many other areas, women’s higher achievement in these subjects clearly contradicts that idea. Ruling this out, the conclusion can be drawn that in liberating women from the patriarchy and giving equal educational opportunities, women have been given a choice in terms of their career, and women just often choose to pursue other interests and career paths.

Perhaps the solution is, therefore, to make STEM more attractive to women, rather than manipulating them into choosing this career path. To do this, we must look at why STEM is not enjoyable to women in the first place. It's clear that a job in STEM is one plagued by discrimination for women. In fact, 50% of women in STEM careers state that they have experienced gender discrimination at work, compared with 19% of men, with 36% of women in STEM jobs stating sexual harrasment is a problem in their workplace. When asked why they think women don’t choose careers in STEM, 48% of women agreed that discrimination in recruiting, hiring, and promotions was major reason.

The workplace discrimination that women face in STEM careers undoubtedly makes these careers less attractive to women. It's important that we first address this discrimination in STEM workplaces, to make sure that in encouraging girls to choose STEM, we are offering them a safe and fair working environment. If initiatives focussed their resources in helping to eradicate discrimination and misogyny in STEM workplaces, instead of trying to sell a feminist myth, then these workplaces would become a much more enjoyable option for girls deciding their future career path.

The problem of a shortage of workers in STEM is a real one, and one that does need solving, and if the best solution to that problem is to recruit more women, it's obvious why companies and organizations are trying so hard to do that. At the same time, it's crucial to acknowledge that the STEM industries need women more than women need STEM careers. The use of a feminist narrative to encourage women to work in these industries is manipulative, because the evidence shows that in women’s decision making surrounding careers, gender inequality plays a smaller role than what people are led to believe.

In a political climate like today’s, it's easy to see how the intersection between feminism and STEM would be a persuasive factor in career decisions. But the truth is that this intersection is weak, and the feminist movement does not need you to become an engineer in order to fight oppression. STEM careers are only good for women if they are choosing it based on their own freewill, and if the recruitment of women into STEM occurs under a myth of feminism, this simply cannot be true.