Women in the STEM field

Are women still aliens in the STEM field?

In 1903, Marie Curie became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize and she won her second prize in 1911. A century has passed since her ground-breaking feat, yet the proportion of women working in the STEM field is much lower than that of men. So let us explore the question: ‘Are women still aliens in the STEM field?’

What is STEM/MINT?

STEM is a term that refers to the academic disciplines that fall under the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics areas (MINT - Mathematik, Informatik, Natur- und Ingenieurwissenschaften). STEM education and the workers it produces are an integral part of any economy - building infrastructure, creating software applications and manufacturing to name a few outputs directly resulting from STEM.

The last century saw a boom in engineering and technology. As modern construction, telecommunications and computer systems emerged, the requirement then was to develop working innovations, thus boosting enrollment and jobs in STEM fields.

Marie Curie is the only woman among the four people who have been awarded multiple Nobel Prizes to date and, along with Linus Pauling, the only person to receive Nobel Prizes in two different fields.

Germany as a leader in STEM

Germany emerged as an industrial powerhouse in the second half of the last century and has since maintained its reputation as a leader in science and technology. It is the home to Volkswagen, BMW, Daimler, Bosch and Siemens to name a few giant institutions. Historically, German scientists such as Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg were instrumental in the development of modern physics. There are numerous university systems and institutes such as the German Research Foundation (DFG), German Aerospace Company (DLR) and Max Planck Society that support and provide research and development.

Representation of women in STEM fields

Women have traditionally been underrepresented in the STEM fields. Statistics from the Women’s Engineer Society in the UK and Harvard Business Review show that women constitute less than 20% of all working engineers. And in some countries, this can be as low as 10%. A 2020 study published by the European Parliament noted that female participation in STEM throughout all levels of tertiary education still lags substantially behind that of males. Female graduates at the Bachelor and Master levels are much fewer compared to relevant female figures for the entire field of tertiary education (23 percentage points lower).

At the University of Stuttgart, according to official figures, in the Winter Semester 19/20, out of the total number of enrolled students of 24,540, there were 8,345 women students (around a one-third representation). In the same period, for the STEM subjects, from around eighteen thousand students, only around five thousand students are women (a lower female representation).

As Professor Sabine Klinkner from the IRS institute at Uni Stuttgart observes, “Changing the mindset of (German) society would aid in greater representation of women in the STEM fields. This reduces the mental stress on the women choosing a career in the STEM field. Many women consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely once they become mothers because men encounter hurdles taking paternity leave. Encouraging men to take paternity leave can level the playing field for women.”

The underrepresentation of women in science and technical education and occupations can be explained by a range of factors including sociological, economic and neuro-psychological ones. Research has shown that interest in a subject is generally an important precondition for academic learning. Moreover, it has been shown that girls’ interest in science and mathematics strongly correlates with their academic achievements in these subjects. Thus, an important starting point for interventional actions aimed at raising girls’ and boys’ interest in STEM education and careers lies in the motivational design of math and science classes.

Professor Klinkner adds: “Something we can also do today is keeping girls in contact with exciting STEM topics right from their formative years. All kids are excited about science, so if we keep this excitement and don't start differentiating between boys and girls, it provides them with the confidence  to work in this field.”

Kalpana Chawla was the first woman of Indian origin in space. She died in the Columbia crash in spring 2003. Chawla studied aeronautical engineering at the Engineering College in Chandigarh, the only woman in the faculty.

There are several aspects that can motivate more women to pursue a career in the STEM field. For instance, experiential learning methods to teach the subject matter and clearer illumination regarding the career opportunities in store would be conducive to increasing interest and awareness.

Ms Vanessa Beutel, a Project Manager at the DLR Institute of Networked Energy Systems, says that a combined approach of men and women can lead to new approaches and ideas. A broad spectrum within a research group needs to cover not only young and old but also men and women. She also says, “As a woman in the STEM field, you can't be pigeonholed. I appeal to women who enjoy STEM activities: Do it! Show what you are made of and be enthusiastic! And above all, spread your enthusiasm and actively help motivate friends, colleagues and all other female citizens. Only by drawing attention to what we have achieved as women in STEM and the joy we get from it, and showing what can be made possible through STEM, can we move forward to motivate and inspire more female students/professionals.”

Inspiring women in STEM fields

There are quite a few examples of important women whose contributions have led to significant breakthroughs in science and technology that play essential roles in our lives.

Marie Curie, a chemist known for her pioneering work in radioactivity, rose from humble beginnings to win two Nobel prizes: one in Physics and one in Chemistry. She is still the only female Nobel laureate to be awarded two Nobel prizes in the sciences.

Space race women Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan broke several stereotypes and became pioneers in their respective fields. It was Katherine Johnson’s calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s Lunar Module with the lunar-orbiting Command and Service Module. Katie Bouman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology helped create the algorithm that led to the first-ever image of a black hole. Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams are two prominent engineers known for their work at NASA. The former was the first Indian woman to go to space and the latter worked extensively on the International Space Station - previously holding records for the most spacewalks by a woman and most spacewalk time for a woman.

And many more scientific and technological inventions and innovations are directly attributed to women - including the life raft, kevlar, the dishwasher, the feeding tube, caller ID and laser cataract surgery.

If you are a female science or engineering student at the University of Stuttgart and would like to build your career in this field, then here are some options within the university for you to explore:

  1. Femtec - Empower. Connect. Inspire. It is a network-based platform, that also offers scholarships, to strengthen your communication, leadership and management skills and take part in their innovative workshops. They also organise excursions to their partner companies around Germany where you can build a strong network that can lead to potential internship opportunities.
  2. 5140 - a highly inclusive network formed by Femtec Alumni that strives to empower marginalized communities in STEM and offers support in career development.

 

Ghayathri Suriyamoorthy

 

Comments

Bea

November 9, 2021 10:38:04 AM 

"Many women consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely once they become mothers because men encounter hurdles taking paternity leave."

In my opinion, there is something wrong with how this sentence is presented because it 1) assumes a heteronormative society and 2) completely disregards the societal pressure women experience to be the main caretaker for their child if they want to be considered a "good" mother. Yes, while it is true that "enouraging men to take paternity leave can help to equal the playing field for women" there are a lot more important societal issues contributing to unequal career development of women in the STEM workfield that have to be addressed.

Overall a very good and interesting article, thank you!

Janina K.

November 5, 2021 5:26:06 PM
Thanks for the levelheaded take on this topic. As you mentioned, we need more pragmatic approaches, such as encouraging men to take paternity leave, and less ideology. Everyone is different and should be free to choose their own path in life.

S.

November 3, 2021 3:44:56 PM
Well done, Ghayu. Expect more and more of such articles and there definitely needs more and more widespread circulation.

Naveen Darshan

November 3, 2021 2:45:46 PM
Important topic and great article.

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