Skip to main content
Skip to main content

Innate or Conditioned: Why So Few Women in STEM?

By Kris Montagne | Position Paper


In this paper I will discuss the low numbers of women entering and remaining in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The main focus will be the two most discussed opinions as to causes of this underrepresentation:  one being personal choice and the other conditioning, via early socialization and gender bias. Through experience, research, and testimonials, I will argue that the latter is the true cause. The two viewpoints will be presented based on research from the studies, surveys and testimonials of psychologists, research directors, engineers, feminist groups, and professors, both in and outside the STEM fields. The paper will conclude with identifying steps for changes that, if taken, could begin to reverse this unacceptable trend. My academic audience will be psychologists, feminists, social activists, and professors who research issues related to the psychology of women and gender. This situation might be resolved sooner if others were made aware of this issue: junior high and high school students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors at all levels, college and university professors, psychologists, social workers and STEM field employers and employees. They will be my secondary audience.  

“11 x 2 + 30 + 10 x 2 x 4 - 300 x 2 - 250 + 12 ÷ 2?”

“Seventy seven,” I answered.

“Correct. 9 - 4 + 5 x 20 - 100 ÷ 4 x 2 - 15?”

"Thirty five” replied Scott.

“Excellent Scott!  Great job!  You are really a whiz!” said Mrs. Barker. That was third grade. We often had random speed-math contests. I enjoyed them and was always pleased when we got the chance to play. In junior high, I walked into my seventh period class, industrial arts, and I was greeted with, “You are in the wrong class. The home economics room is on the other side of the building.” I could not tell if David was trying to be funny or if he really meant it. It did not matter because this class was pure fun. I learned quite a bit about metal, wood and plastic and best of all, I was able to use hand, power, and machine tools—which was not “ladylike.” By the time I reached high school, I had grown extremely fond of science and mathematics. Yet comments like David’s continued and I experienced the all-too-familiar biases at least two hundred fold. Midway through my sophomore year of high school, I enrolled in an electronics engineering technology course at a vocational school. I guess I was one of the students not bright enough to “get the message.” Needless to say, when I started my junior year, I was the only female student in the class, and it became very clear something was amiss. I have never subscribed to the “for boys” and “for girls” stereotypes and never will. But I worried that many women did subscribe to them, shortchanging themselves in the process. Due to the doubt and lack of confidence these unsolicited messages trigger, a woman is less likely to pursue or maintain her science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) goals. Resolution of this situation can begin once we actively promote awareness about the long term consequences of gender biased messages in early socialization.  This awareness needs to be followed by guidance and training on ways to eliminate these stereotypes during these highly impressionable years.

As of 2008, around half of the female workforce, in the United States, participated in science and engineering occupations (National Science Foundation 8). However, only a small percentage of those women worked in the fields of mathematics and engineering, also referred to as the “hard” sciences. The demand for employees in the technological fields is increasing. An increase in the number of women in these fields will not only satisfy the demand, but will also provide the diversity these fields require in order to develop better solutions to the ever-evolving technological issues facing the world. On a individual level, without representation, the numbers of women entering STEM fields will continue to decrease, denying women access to a large subset of in-demand, well-paying jobs. On a national level, the inability to meet these employment demands serves only to weaken the nation’s competitiveness. A more important ramification is the social one. As professors from Purdue University stated, “If ‘boys invent things and girls use the things boys invent,’ then society will be constructed in large part by a single demographic group, while the creativity and insight of half the nation’s talent remains untapped” (qtd. in Margolis and Fisher 106). Expanding creativity could be as simple as increasing the hiring numbers of talented women upon graduation.  However, among full-time enrollment undergraduates, women are less likely to enroll in science and engineering (National Science Foundation 3). According to the National Science Foundation, “overall, more women than men graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree; [yet], men earn a higher proportion of degrees in many science and engineering fields of study” (4). Following a seven year decline, women received only 17.8% of the engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2009, the lowest since 1995 (Gibbons 11). Although significant strides have been made over several decades, to increase the number of women in STEM fields, women are still grossly underrepresented. While most unequivocally agree that the number of women in engineering and computer-related fields are disproportionately low, opinions vary as to why more women are not entering or remaining in these critical fields. Some argue that this deficit is due merely to personal choice, yet many contend that gender biases and stereotypes are the overarching factors on which women base their decisions. Some who support the personal choice theory say it is purely a matter of testosterone; women do not have high enough levels and thus they are not interested in the “hard” sciences. The gender bias/stereotype supporters approach the issue from two categories: “pipeline” and “leaky pipeline.” While the “pipeline” research focuses mainly on understanding why so few women enter the STEM occupations, the “leaky pipeline” concentrates on explaining why so many women leave the STEM fields at the various stages. Regardless of which category these researchers choose, it is understood that “memorable messages about … careers differ by gender and institution type influencing career and major choice” (Berkelaar 1). What is the answer? Do women simply choose not to engage in the hard sciences because it is “their nature?” Or are they discouraged, early on, from having an interest and then stigmatized when they disobey these intentional, or unintentional, messages?

Some suggest that women simply choose not to enter STEM careers because women, by nature, do not like these fields. As a result of a case study, two members of the University of Kansas, and one member each from Western Washington University and Western Kentucky University argued that personal preference is responsible for the underrepresentation of women in the field of information technology or IT. Joshua L. Rosenbloom, an economist from University of Kansas, and his co-authors admitted that the explanations for the deficit can be “grouped under three broad headings”:  differences in ability, choice, and discrimination. However, they claimed that each category overlaps with the others and that attempting to unravel those combinations would be far too challenging. They opted to move the discussion forward by presenting a case study of IT occupations. The team also surveyed non-IT professionals in equally demanding careers, as a control group, to compare career motivation differences as well as cognitive ability. In an attempt to isolate the personality differences, they constructed an occupational personality model based on the six Holland Hexagon occupational themes that are   “a typology of work environments” and their associated personality traits: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. The Holland Hexagon themes are an addition to the Strong Interest Inventory (SII), produced in 1927, by Dr. E.K. Strong, as an assessment tool to assist individuals with career and educational choices. The results of the occupational personality survey were then measured against current responses from the SII. The surveys included work and family history and other background information as well. The team compared and consolidated all survey results.

Based on these results, they insisted that the lack of women in these fields reflects a choice a woman makes “in response to differences in actual or perceived job characteristics” (545). Interpreting data from their surveys, they asserted that gender was not a “statistically significant factor” in whether or not an IT career was chosen. Combining the results of their survey with the Strong Interest Inventory of 567 IT and non-IT individuals, they concluded that women and men value different aspects of work; “therefore, [they] make different career choices” (553). An article in the Boston Globe reports that during an interview, Rosenbloom supported the adage that women like working with people and men like working with things. Although he admitted the comment was possibly sexist, he insisted that the stereotype “[has] a germ of truth” (McArdle 2). Rosenbloom and his colleagues conceded that socialization or “more basic differences” may play a role in a woman’s decision to enter the IT field, but they are so insignificant that the more obvious reason is that the women were free to say no and they just did. In other words, a woman’s choice to enter or remain in a STEM field is not one influenced by gender stereotypes or societal conditioning, but a free choice determined purely by talent and inherent motivation, i.e. testosterone.

Naturally, many psychologists, engineers, feminists and college professors contradict this view asserting that gender bias in early socialization is the cause for the low numbers of women in STEM fields. In the article, “STEMing the Tide,” psychologists from the University of Massachusetts, contested the claims made by Rosebloom and his team. While they acknowledged that entering a STEM field is ultimately a personal choice, they renounced the idea that women’s professional choices are not “strongly constrained by cultural assumptions about their … ability or lack thereof” (16). To begin their study, Melissa A. McManus, and her colleagues, developed a “stereotype inoculation model,” to determine whether their theory that “increasing young women’s exposure to successful female scientists, mathematicians and engineers [would] … enhance positive attitudes, feelings of self-efficacy and motivation to pursue STEM majors and careers” (2). During one study, they tested brief interactions of women with females and males “posing” as peers majoring in mathematics. As expected, they found that although the women surveyed were still aware of the negative stereotypes, their contact with successful women from the STEM fields was beneficial. They admitted that more than the occasional contact with successful female scientists and engineers is required to change “global stereotypes”; however, they emphasized that it is extremely effective in preventing women from applying STEM stereotypes to their own self-concept. The phrase, “imposter phenomenon,” was coined during a study of high achieving women to describe their belief that they are devoid of talent and skill “despite their objectively outstanding performance” (4). Building on this fact, McManus and her team strongly cautioned that it is important to investigate self-concept independent of STEM test performance. The unsolicited stereotypes responsible for this low self-esteem begin inconspicuously, at an early age, in places as conspicuous as toy stores. The “boys” aisles are usually stocked with “thought-provoking toys like binoculars and telescopes, while the “girls’” [aisles] glow pink with dolls and tea sets” (Koehler 2). This is just the beginning of a lifetime of conditioning, which inevitably destroys or inhibits a young girls’ ability to build confidence in her science and math skills or in her technical abilities.

 At every developmental stage, “girls and women are exposed to the message that [they are] worse in science and math compared with their male peers” (McManus 1). At elementary school age, schools and parents consistently expect lower performance from girls in science and math than from boys. Exposure to hard science tools, such as computers, is instrumental in establishing interest in STEM fields. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in a study on the development of interest in computers, whether it is during college or at work, females are exposed to computers later in their lives. Among those in the study who reported later exposure, 65% were female (Varma 42). Once again, in their high school years, “by the lack of reference to female scientists in science textbooks and curricula,” girls receive the subtle reminder that “science is for boys” (McManus 1). By the time they enter college, as evidenced by the gender disparity in STEM majors, most women have certainly received the message, loud and clear, that they do not belong in these professions. The disproportionate gender ratio of STEM experts in academia “undermines female students’ identification with positive attitudes about … self efficacy in STEM and saps their motivation to pursue careers in science, engineering or technology” (McManus 2). Many women quit at this juncture, never entering the pipeline. But what fate awaits those who do not pick up on, or choose to ignore, these “subtle” hints and subliminal messages?

By default, women who do not succumb to these rules, have a whole new set of deeply ingrained barriers awaiting them in most STEM field workplaces: “With the already low number of female students entering engineering programs, retaining those students becomes especially important” (Kissinger et al. 1). Otherwise, they conveniently become a part of the leaky pipeline. As shown via the study conducted by Kissinger and his colleagues, in order to decrease the likelihood of this fate, a strong “sense of belonging and connection to [the college and university] community” must be developed early in a woman’s career (5). To understand how colleges influence a woman’s career decision, we can look at the journal article, “Engineering Ignorance,” in which four university professors discuss a series of studies conducted to determine why the number of women in engineering is so low. During one of the studies, engineers and their managers were specifically asked this question. The respondents converted their ignorance into ”commonplace explanations” (Franzway et al. 96). These explanations ranged from “everything is great” to “I don’t even see people as men or women” to “the criteria for engineering is more difficult than for arts” (Franzway et al. 95-96). This “ignorance” is not just a simple lack of knowledge, but “a set of practices with complex supporting social causes equivalent to those involved in knowledge practices” (Franzway et al. 96). Although some women in the “Engineering Ignorance” study recalled a “childhood fascination for, and an expert facility with, engineering technologies … [they] experienced mixed feelings about their minority status in engineering classrooms … [and] … industry.” In the workplace they were pleased they were not “girly” and could “laugh off” any comments regarding their gender (93). Those who are unable or unwilling to conform to the masculine behavior patterns tend to become part of the leak. “Men know nothing about the oppression they inflict” (Hamer qtd. in Le Doeuff 89). The professors warned that the lack of knowledge or understanding about gender and change is shaped by “sexual politics”, the avoidance of power relations of the genders. In the words of the professors, “it is not … [the] ignorance about why there are so few women engineers”, but “how such ignorance is [influenced] by a deeper ignorance about sexual politics” (Franzway et al. 97). Aside from not realizing, or pretending not to realize, that the gender gap exists, the lack of flexibility in the workplace also contributes heavily to the leaky pipeline.

Some companies that employ engineers have inflexible rules in place, which cause women to reluctantly leave the workforce. Despite campaigns by employers and professional groups to promote equity of gender, “evidence suggests that gender inequity is endemic within engineering workplace cultures” (Franzway et al. 91). Whereas men are not forced to make the decision between work and family, women often have to make these difficult choices, which obviously contribute to the low numbers of women in STEM fields. While leaving the workforce permanently can be just a personal choice for a very small number of women, in too many cases it is the forced result of an employer refusing to be supportive of flexible workloads or work schedules over a short period. Some companies ensure the woman is made to pay for using family friendly policies, with which the companies are required to comply. As reported in a 2005 Harvard Business Review survey, in corporate America, non-traditional work arrangements “are stigmatized, and those who take advantage of these policies can face subtle penalties such as fewer promotions” (Koehler 70). In some firms, even when the woman has the appropriate skill set, she only gets a background job. If these tactics are not effective, these employers will attempt to make the work environment as hostile as possible in hopes of persuading the woman to leave. This is clearly indicative of the damage that stereotypical beliefs, such as those expressed by Rosenbloom, cause not only to the detriment of women but also of companies. Other companies are not subtle about it as the male employees or managers may outright tell a woman that she does not belong in engineering. The woman becomes isolated and “the pressure on [her] self esteem can be overwhelming” (Robinson 67). Even when a woman has the same academic credentials and does more work, her efforts seldom result in promotions to the top positions or the top salaries of her male counterparts. Due to these inequities, in most of these situations many women consider leaving the STEM occupation for a less isolating and hostile one. Although this is not specific to the STEM field, it contributes significantly to the declining numbers of women in these fields. Yet, with some effort, we can alter these misguided mindsets.

Being conditioned, via early socialization, many women make the decision to not enter the pipeline. Those who do enter, but are not fortunate enough to have a strong support system in college or to gain employment with one of the few companies that appreciate skill and productivity regardless of gender, will more than likely become a leaky pipeline statistic. As a result, the number of women in the pipeline will continue to stagnate or decline. The findings of researchers in the conditioning/stereotype camp resonate with my personal experiences growing up. What I did not quite understand as a young child is remarkably clear in hindsight. Researching this issue, I have come to realize that I have been making excuses for many people over the years. While I did not and still do not accept that women do not belong in the “hard” sciences, I have been enlightened to the fact that I, subconsciously, have adopted the so-called male behavior pattern as my own. I whole-heartedly agree with McManus and her colleagues’ conclusion that:

Even in the absence of gender parity (which of course should be the long-term goal), … increasing the visibility of a critical mass of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and providing women [with] opportunities to have personal contact with them, has a profound positive effect on young women’s self perceptions in science, math and engineering.

By understanding that early childhood messages are influencing girls’ interest in science and math, parents and elementary school teachers can begin to undo the damage that has prevailed for far too long. Young boys will not be instilled with the idea that they have to be the best at math and science or that it is their duty, when they become men, to convince women that they do not belong in the engineering and computing fields. Young girls will not be brainwashed with the idea that if they decide to follow their dreams of being engineers, they will be ostracized. They can also feel comfort in the fact that if they have the same education and work just as hard as their male counterparts, their pay will be commensurate and they will not be overlooked for top jobs. High school science and math teachers, as well as guidance counselors need to do their parts by first re-evaluating and then adjusting their approaches to teaching and advising. Girls will then be better prepared to enter undergraduate studies with confidence. College professors and employers need to be vigilant and stamp out any signs of isolation or intimidation. Unfortunately, these detrimental messages begin as early as age two negatively influencing women’s exposure to, experiences with and interest in hard sciences. Therefore, it is our civic duty to impassion and encourage young girls’ interest in the hard sciences by exposing them to positive early socialization and strong support systems throughout their development, to foster the necessary self-esteem and motivation to realize their goals, in any chosen field.

Works Cited

Berkelaar, Brenda L., Lorraine G. Kisselburgh and Patrice M. Buzzanell. “Locating and Disseminating Effective Messages:  Enhancing Gender Representation in Computing Majors and Careers.” SIGMIS CPR Conference. Charlottesville, VA, ACM. 2008. 1-3. Web. 14 Apr 2011<>

Franzway, Suzanne, Rhonda Sharp, Julie E. Mills, and Judith Gill. "Engineering Ignorance: The Problem of Gender Equity in Engineering." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 30.1 (2009): 89-106. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. U of Maryland Lib., College Park, MD. 30 Mar 2011 <>

Gibbons, Michael T. Engineering by the Numbers.Washington: American Society for Engineering Education, 2010. Engineering College Profiles & Statistics Book. June 2010. <>

Kissinger, Jeff, Ryan C. Campbell, Aaron Lombrozo, and Denise Wilson. “The Role of Gender in Belonging and Sense of Community.” Frontiers in Education Conference. San Antonio, TX, ASEE/IEEE. 2009. 1-6. Web. 30 Mar 2011 <>

Koehler, Elka. "Women in STEM fields still need support." Laser Focus World Jan 2008: 68-70. Web. 16 Apr 2011. <>

McArdle, Elaine. “Freedom to Say No.” Boston Globe 18 May 2008. 26 Apr 2011 <

McManus, Melissa A., Jane G. Stout, Nilanjana Dasgupta and Matthew Hunsinger. "STEMing the Tide: Using Ingroup Experts to Inoculate Women's Self-Concept in Science,

Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100.2 (2010): 255-270. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. U of Maryland Lib., College Park, MD. 30 Mar 2011 <>

National Science Foundation. Department of Science Resources Statistics. Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2011. <>

Robinson, Gail M., Deirdre Drummey and Signe Myers. “Women Engineers: A Very Rare Breed.” Design News Aug. 1989: 62-79. Web. 30 Mar 2011 <>

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. “Why are there so few women in information technology? Assessing the role of personality in career choices.” Journal of Economic Psychology 29 (2008). 26 Apr. 2011<>

Varma, Roli. “Gender Differences in Factors Influencing Students towards Computing.” Computer Science Education. 19.1 (2009): 37-49. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOHost. U of Maryland Lib., College Park, MD. 30 Mar 2011 <>