The Effects of Gender Stereotypes on Females' education and career

By: Manya Gauba

Published: 8/10/2020

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“A gender-equal society would be one where the word 'gender' does not exist: where everyone can be themselves” (Gloria Steinem). This kind of society is difficult to imagine due to the deeply-rooted sexism that is prevalent in today’s community. With rules and laws made against discrimination between genders, it is easy to say that this ideal society already exists. But in reality, gender stereotypes play a prominent role in females’ careers and education.

Gender inequality in education can be traced back to the early days of modern civilization. In the Greek civilization, “Most Athenian girls had a primarily domestic education” (Education) and in Renaissance Europe, “...female students… [were] encouraged to know some history and to ride, dance, sing, play the lute, and appreciate poetry… [and were] discouraged from learning mathematics...” (Spielvogel 348). By looking at the fact that females were educated in household roles and the arts from the beginning, it isn’t surprising that gender inequalities in mathematical and technical roles persist today. Slowly, women started to realize the unfairness that was prevalent in their society and in the 19th century, “...the numbers of women receiving college education...rapidly rose...[and] by 1900 women were nearly half of those enrolled in such institutions...the female labor force grew primarily among young, unmarried women...Married women working outside their own homes remained a rare occurrence” (Feminism). This is one of the most important periods of improvement because females started realizing the importance that education plays in one’s life. If more women never decided to gain more education, the society today would be more male-dominated. In addition, looking at the fact that only unmarried women worked, it shows that old stereotypes of females staying in the home after they get married continue in the 20th century. Women finally received true equality in education through the government when, “In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program...and thereby forced all-male schools to open their doors to women” (Women’s movement). This is one of the first steps that had to be taken by the government to promote equality for women and was crucial to the women’s rights movement. Although many laws have been passed for women’s equality, society today continues to have traces of inequalities which stemmed from the past.

It is true that society has made much improvement since those ancient times, but it is also true that because of gender stereotypes, many females are held back in their careers and education. Regarding the current society in 2018, males still dominate many engineering/math related professions, and this imbalance starts from the classroom setting that cultivates students. A study conducted shows that, “In upper secondary school only a few study programmes (out of nearly 30) attract both boys and girls...nursing, social care and the humanities are dominated by females, whereas the technical/engineering branches are heavily male-dominated.....[and] after nine years of co-educational schooling, most girls and boys start to pursue highly gender-specific educational careers” (Dryler). At this point, keeping humanities for girls and technical skills for boys is an example of a stereotype that has roots from ancient times. Knowing that only a few fields have equal male and female participation should cause worry because of the lack of diversity in the only male and only female dominated fields. The study also explored peer influence and its effect on the educational decisions females make, “for instance, many boys in a classroom might influence girls to be more 'boyish' and to make educational choices accordingly...choosing a specific type of education can depend upon the composition of pupils within them” (Dryler). In schools, girls would typically feel out of place in a male-dominated classroom, and this has to do with the influences/pressure that might come from the environment they’re in. This pushes them to make decisions to stay with other females in their classes and as a result they can’t get involved in male-dominated fields. The effect of this pressure can be seen at Harvard where, “Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as ‘probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country’...The final class roster...100 percent male” (Sommers). This gives an insight into what eventually happens when the peer pressure starts to narrow down the number of females in math and engineering classes. In due course, this affects the future careers of females in multiple manners.

These stereotypes primarily affect the gender distribution in the workplace for women, especially in technical and mathematical areas. Overall, the looming question is, “Why, if women make up 46 percent of the U.S. workforce, does U.S. Department of Commerce data show that they hold just 12 percent of science and engineering jobs in business and industry?” (Krieger). In terms of holding a job, females and males have a nearly equal distribution; however, women holding less than 1/5th of the jobs in science and engineering is alarming. It is the result of a low number of females breaking the common stereotype of women only in humanities roles. To give a more detailed outlook, “Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering” (Sommers). Coincidentally, seeing the women professors teaching less in the engineering and math subjects, it may influence the dispersion of the genders in those classes. Class distributions imply that women face inequality in the workplace, especially in engineering related fields. For example, at Google, “The firing of Google engineer James Damore for suggesting men are more suited to technical roles than women triggered a culture war inside the Internet giant” (Guynn). This example shows that many people conclude themselves that women can’t do technical work better than men do, whether they say it out loud or not, it is a decision that some make unconsciously. Unconscious biases are a result of long-lasting stereotypes, such as a women’s role at home.

Stereotypically, females have been given the responsibility of household work, chores and children. To put things in comparison, “Women spend 2.5 times more time and effort than men on unpaid care work and household responsibilities” (Puri). Because of the centuries-old norm of women handling chores in the household, women have to shoulder domestic and job responsibilities if they wish to have a career. In a typical household, men would bring home the money, and women would take care of the children. What eventually happens when a woman tries to work is she must balance her household responsibilities and career. Most of the time, women would choose their children over their career, but studies have shown that working mothers increase the chance of their daughters getting employed and sons staying at home (Howard). This is important because it breaks the cycle of stereotypes that has been affecting everyone since they were set in place. Another factor that affects women in the workforce is paid leave. Paid leave influences mothers when they have young children they need to take care of. A study was conducted at Harvard that compared how long mothers stayed in the workforce after the birth of their first child. The results saw that, “Over the course of 10 years, the highest participation rate was found among those who had taken paid leave offered by their employer, followed by those who took unpaid leave, and last, those who quit their jobs after their child's birth” (Fessenden). Overall, the difficulty of balancing household responsibilities and their careers prohibits women from achieving success in their careers.

My high school is also a victim of the stereotypes that affect gender distributions in math and engineering classes. In its most advanced math classes, the number of females gradually decrease. In AP Calculus AB (the first level of calculus), there are 34 females and 31 males, but in Honors Accelerated Pre-Calculus BC, there are 7 females and 14 males. In AP Calculus BC there are 6 females and 15 males, and in AP Statistics there are 15 females and 30 males. At the beginning, the female to male distribution is very good, however, as the level of difficulty increases, there are almost always more than double the number of males in a class than females. These numbers are frightening because it eventually leads to more male-heavy math classes in college and only a few women left in any math related careers. These statistics are similar in advanced physics. In AP Physics 1, there are 27 females and 55 males. In AP Physics 2, there are 2 females and 16 males. Even though the number of females and males decreases in both classes, the ratio of females to males goes from about 1:2 to 1:8. This demonstrates that the stereotypes are a problem at my high school and are causing more females to drop out of math and physics classes. The trend continues in engineering classes as well. In Honors Java Programming, there are 3 females and 23 males, and in Principles of Engineering, there are 4 females and 12 males. An anonymous sophomore female took one of these classes, and she said that the teacher assigned her seat next to boys during first semester, and with one of the other girls in second semester. She said that she felt more comfortable during second semester because she was sitting with another girl. This shows that the lack of females in math, science, and engineering classes leads to a feeling of uncertainty in females, that causes them to choose more female-dominated professions.

Although this issue may seem difficult to mitigate, simply sparking interest in STEM at a young age can make all the difference!