When she was in high school, my mother-in-law took an aptitude test. She had an exceptional mind for engineering, the test said, scoring in the 99th percentile for math and science. As a woman who excelled in science, her guidance counselor told her, she would make a perfect librarian.
It’s a moment that changed her life. When the door to a career in science was closed on her face and she was told to pursue a woman’s job instead, she listened. She never became an engineer, but every time she tinkered with a broken household appliance, she would wonder what might have been.
Today, women have a lot more opportunities than our parents’ generation did, but that doesn’t mean their prospects are completely equal. Even with laws that promise equal careers, women have to struggle against the weight of history.
There are still far more men in STEM jobs than women, and that’s not just because of sexist hiring practices. Women still aren’t going after those careers in the same numbers as men, even when they do have equal opportunities.
That might not seem like a problem. After all, why shouldn’t a woman go into whatever career she wants? The fear of STEM subjects has a lot more to do with tradition than most people realize, and it’s affecting female equality.
There are surprising benefits to giving a girl an extra push into STEM – and it starts at home.
Men’s Jobs Pay Better
There are jobs we think of as “a man’s work” and jobs we think of as “a woman’s work”. The jobs women had in the past, before they had the same opportunities as men, still hold a place in our minds as jobs for women – and it affects the jobs women choose.
Even today, 97% of kindergarten teachers and 83% of librarians are female. Those women’s jobs from older generations are still dominated by women, even when they have the opportunity to choose something else. Likewise, traditionally male jobs are still dominated by men. More women have been taking them, but 80% of engineers of 92% of computer programmers are still male.
This is a huge part of the reason women still don’t make as much money as men. All those jobs that have historically been dominated by women still don’t pay as well. A woman who goes into a traditionally female field simply won’t get paid as much as someone working a so-called “man’s job”.
Of all traditionally male jobs, STEM pays the best off the bat. Elementary school teachers today – 80% of whom are women – have an average starting salary of $34,891. Engineers, on the other hand – 80% of whom are men – have an average starting salary of $64,891 – nearly twice what a teacher makes.
Women Pass Math Anxiety On To Their Daughters
So why don’t women go into STEM? A lot of it has to do with tradition. There used to be panicked talks about why girls didn’t do as well in math as boys. Some wondered if women were just inherently inferior at math – but hardly anyone ever pointed out the obvious. These women didn’t even have the option of getting into a STEM career. What was the point of trying in math class?
This still affects women today. They might be told they have the same opportunities as men, but their education – 97% of the time – starts with a woman who was raised to believe she could never be good at math.
This affects girls a lot. Studies have shown that, when a woman with math anxiety teaches an elementary class, the girls become less confident in their math ability. The girls see a woman struggling with math and start thinking it’s part of their gender and there’s nothing they can do to change it.
Meanwhile, the boys, if anything, feel more confident than ever. They just start to accept that math skills are in their biology. The boys will succeed, the girls will fail, and there’s no reason to try to fight it.
When women believe, they succeed at STEM
Girls’ math scores are not written in their biology. Women have the potential to do as well as men on math tests – they’ve just been slowed down by a lack of opportunity. In the past, math wasn’t supposed to be a part of their future, and so they didn’t ace their tests – and they passed that anxiety on to the next generation.
Times are changing. Women are starting to catch up with men’s math scores. In 1972, women’s scores on the SAT trailed men’s by 38 points. As time has gone on, though, and women have started feeling more confident in Math, they’ve started catching up. Today, they trail men by 31 points. There’s still a gap – but it’s getting smaller.
If they believe they can do well in math and science, they actually will, and all those jobs that pay so much more money don’t have to be dominated by men.
Female Scientists Make The World A Better Place
It’s about more than just money, though. When women become scientists, they bring a new perspective into how our world works. It gives us people like Marie Curie and Jane Goodall who looked at the world from a different angle and brought about some incredible discoveries.
It starts at home. We can wish our daughters had better teachers or that traditionally female jobs got better wages, and we might even be able to make those changes happen – but they won’t happen today. It’ll take years before these social problems are alleviated and while those years are passing by, our daughters are getting older.
We can give our daughters confidence right now. We can nurture their interest in math and science and build up their ability before they walk into their first classroom. We can ensure that, when their teachers introduce math and science, they never have to doubt their ability to do everything the boys can do.