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    Where Are China’s Women in STEM?

    The gender imbalance in STEM fields has less to do with outdated stereotypes about “male reasoning” and more to do with a lack of role models for aspiring female scientists.
    Apr 18, 2024#science

    Over the past decade or so, the gender ratio of students enrolled at universities in China has skewed increasingly toward women. However, female students are concentrated in fields such as humanities and the social sciences, a fact that has led to their continued underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, professions.

    Academics and researchers have offered up no shortage of explanations for this phenomenon. The most famous is arguably the “leaky pipeline” hypothesis, which likens women’s advancement in STEM to a faulty pipe that leaks qualified candidates as they are pushed out by hostile work and study environments, gendered stigmas, or a lack of suitable mentors. If true, the gender imbalance in STEM should widen at each stage of the education process.

    In 1994, the American psychologist Robert W. Lent put forward a different explanation, attributing the lack of women in STEM to their poor “sense of self-efficacy” — that is, the self-esteem and self-confidence needed to pursue their career aspirations.

    One thing both hypotheses agree on is the importance of social stereotypes and stigmas in deterring women from careers in STEM. In China, the researchers Zheng Qinhui and Hu Rong broke these gender stereotypes down into three main categories. First are what’s known as field-specific ability beliefs (FAB), in which women are held to be less proficient than men at the skills needed to succeed in STEM. Second are entrenched gender norms that hold women — and not men — responsible for caring for their families and performing housework, regardless of their respective professional obligations. And finally, there is the widespread association of STEM subjects with supposedly masculine traits like “abstract reasoning.”

    To better understand how these stereotypes affected women in STEM fields, I interviewed over 40 female undergraduates, as well as graduate students and one doctoral advisor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I found that one of the biggest determinants of their ability to survive the leaky pipeline and stay in STEM was external; in many cases, they benefitted from what other academics might call a “significant other” — family, friends, or the right mentor — who encouraged them to continue.

    In one case, my interviewee mentioned a teacher who had let her go head-to-head with the boys in her class, encouraging them to see who could come up with the most creative solutions. Another talked about the support given to her by her parents, who encouraged her to stick with her dream of getting into graduate school in a STEM field, even if she had to retake the entrance exam.

    At the same time, many of my interviewees said they lacked role models who could guide them or simply show them what success would look like. The further along the STEM track they got, the fewer women they saw in their class and the rarer it became for them to find female mentors. For a handful of particularly talented women, the coursework is easy enough that these obstacles can be shrugged off, but those who struggle with the coursework may feel they have nowhere to turn.

    The power of role models should not be underestimated. One female Ph.D. student I interviewed talked about a friend group she formed with a handful of older students in her program. “There are now three other women in the group — I feel a lot of positive encouragement here,” she explained. “It’s not that they’re especially outstanding or high-achieving, but they help show me how women do things in an environment like this; that way I don’t feel like I’m special.”

    The diversity and complexity of women’s experiences in STEM make it impossible to create a one-size-fits-all approach to attracting more women into the field. What’s needed is a holistic approach, in which families, schools and society more broadly work to create an environment and conditions conducive to women studying STEM.

    But there are concrete steps that could help close the gap, such as a top-down campaign against internalized gender stereotypes regarding women in STEM. Education officials could arrange for female scientists to visit schools at all levels to promote academic and scientific research, encourage female students to participate in lab work and sci-tech innovation, and bring them into contact with potential role models and mentors.

    Recently, I was pleased to learn that one of my interviewees has since become an expert in the field of atmospheric science and a successful popular science blogger. Who knows? Perhaps she’ll be the role model she lacked growing up, showing a new generation of young women that science isn’t just for boys.

    This article is based on a research article published in the academic journal Youth Studies.

    Translator: David Ball.

    (Header image: Researchers at work, Shanghai, Feb. 27, 2024. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)