In a news alert distributed on September 12, 2012, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) draws attention to the fact that, on average, women still earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. The numbers are even more alarming for black and Hispanic women who earn, on average, 64 cents and 55 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) draws attention to another equally compelling set of statistics. Women, they assert, “receive fewer scholarly awards than would be expected based on the proportion of female PhDs and full professors in a field.”
A groundbreaking study by Corinne Moss-Racusin, as reported on Ilana Yurkiewicz’s blog on Scientific American, threw more fuel to the fire. In the study, scientists were presented with identical application material for a position of a lab manager, with half the scientists receiving the material with the name of a male, while the others received the materials with the name of a female.
No drum roll needed to announce that the “female” applicants received lower salary offers and were rated lower in competence, and hireability. In fact, both male and female scientists were equally culpable in gender bias.
Such bias is not simply limited to scientific disciplines, either. The Australian women’s soccer team is ranked as the 9th best in the world, while the men’s soccer team’s rank is 34th. Yet when it comes to salaries, News.com.au reports, the women’s team is paid around $100 a week, while the men’s team rakes in a whopping $72,000 a week.
These findings send a powerful message that gender discrimination, fostered by stereotypes, is still present in today’s world. Programs to encourage girls to focus on studies and to show that girls can do as well as boys, though, can change that.
Science and mathematics have long been regarded as fields suited only for men; despite views having changed, many preconceptions and stereotypes still remain. Even today, it remains a challenge for women to reach the pinnacle in a science, technology, engineer, or math (STEM) career, let alone get treated and paid the same as men, at least in part, due to the society’s penchant for pigeon holing women into certain careers. The “glass ceiling” is a visible, yet so far impenetrable, barrier that keeps women from reaching equality with men in the professions.
Even though the disparity is decreasing between men and women going into high-paying careers, and that of salaries both groups are paid, women are still scarce in leadership positions and in science-related fields. Some, such as Jeanne Sahadi in her CNN Money article “Where Women’s Pay Trumps Men’s,” insist that this is because women log fewer hours and choose more “fulfilling, flexible, and safe” jobs that pay less. Although it may be true about a few women, other women like Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court Justice, undoubtedly chose a difficult, male-dominated career, and worked full-time. Yet the glass ceiling remains intact.
Another example of gender disparity was the 2008 presidential election: in it, Hillary Clinton ran against Barack Obama in a race for the Democratic nomination. Although their political views most certainly contributed, one cannot help but wonder if gender, too, played a role. Even though minorities are also heavily discriminated against, voters chose to elect a man of a minority ethnicity over a woman. Both these instances illustrate society’s view of women as inferior individuals, a view deeply ingrained in the minds of many people. It is so ingrained, in fact, that it even is part of some religions. In the Bible, woman is created from man to provide company, and is also depicted as the temptress who draws men into doing evil. For many people, this depiction in religion and the time-honored belief of women’s inferiority is enough for them to allow gender discrimination to continue.
Women with careers also face the stereotype of women as housewives, who are incapable of participating in a proper career, and only able to stay at home and while depending on a spouse for sustenance. Especially when going into careers dominated by men, women feel pressured by stereotypes. As social organisms, humans—including women—like to be accepted by others; thus, even women with stunning talent downplay their abilities or do not perform as well. Studies have shown, that when girls asked to take a math test are reminded of the stereotype that boys tend to better than girls at math, those taking the test did worse than those not reminded of the stereotype. When it comes to STEM careers, many women also try to “check” themselves, to decide if they sound competent enough when talking with a male colleague about work. Yet this “checking,” as stated by Shankar Vedantam of NPR, in his article “How Stereotypes Can Drive Women to Quit Science,” does just the opposite, and instead makes the women sound less competent, and distracts them from their work. The most tragic part of this is that many girls avoid male-dominated fields, even if they have talent in the subject, either because they are unaware of their talent or are concerned about being stereotyped. Society may be losing hundreds of talented women just from stereotypes.
Although stereotypes and societal niches are often dismissed as only small anthills of obstacles by some, it is obvious that they are in reality large hurdles. However, encouraging girls and pointing out that girls are equally capable in math and science improves performance on related tests. Many stereotypes are also, unintentially, cultivated in the classroom, a fact ignored by those who underestimate the role stereotypes and societal niches play in gender equality. The implications of comments foster stereotypes. By middle school, a few students believe in those stereotypes or are affected by those who believe in them. Classroom stereotypes do make a difference, and efforts by schools to remove those stereotypes and institute programs supporting girls pursuing their education can help society as a whole move closer to the goal of shattering the glass ceiling. On September 17, 2012, The New York Times published an article describing WitsOn, a new online program with a goal of encouraging college girls to go into STEM fields. Mentors respond to questions and concerns girls have about STEM careers, helping turn those who are not certain about their career path into those who are. The test forum was a success, and some of the participating mentors say “could help bolster the confidence of women who think differently from their male classmates — [those who give] answers that are correct but unexpected.” More such programs could motivate girls to go into STEM and other male-dominated fields and finally break the glass ceiling.
Remember the lyrics to the song “Imagine”? “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will live as one.” Perhaps, if society unites for this cause, the glass ceiling can finally be shattered and allow the next generation to stand atop the shoulders of giants and glimpse what has not been seen before. The words of the Pledge of Allegiance will finally be fulfilled—“…one nation…with liberty and justice for all.”
NOTE: This column is the work of a Montgomery County Public Schools high school student. The student wishes to remain anonymous.