Gender and science: glass ceiling or sticky floor?

On 19th November there will be various events for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at UEA which will include raising awareness of opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) based subjects. People working in Stem careers provide society with necessities such as water, energy, transport and healthcare equipment – so why aren’t the proportions of people of different genders working in Stem representative of society as a whole? More specifically, why does Stem continue to be so male dominated? Is it because men are more likely to progress in Stem careers because of a ‘glass ceiling’ for women? Or is it because women are less likely to choose a Stem career to start with because of a ‘sticky floor’?

A strawpoll survey of 45 UEA students conducted by Concrete to find out how perceptions of Stem subjects had influenced their decisions found that women are more likely than men to be discouraged – either directly by parents or teachers, or indirectly by the media and cultural expectations – from studying Stem subjects. The reasons were mixed; there were academic and employability concerns, but very few people were discouraged specifically because of their gender. What was striking was that almost all those discouraged went on to study Stem subjects with no further discrimination.

Of course, the major flaw of the survey is that all the participants were in higher education and the majority of the small sample were Stem students: women who had already made it off the ‘sticky floor’.

According to Women in Science and Engineering (Wise), the number of girls in studying Stem subjects in school is increasing, but according to Women in Engineering (WES) the number of female A Level physics students is still less than 20%. As of 2013, women accounted for only 5.5% of professionally registered (Chartered) engineers in employment. Further, Wise reported recently that the gender pay gap was actually increasing in some jobs. Perhaps the ‘glass ceiling’ and the ‘sticky floor’ are working together in a vicious circle, continually dissuading women from Stem.

The beginning of the solution may be to identify women who have made it through Stem’s ‘glass ceiling’ and present them as role models to young people of all genders. By promoting awareness of women who have achieved their ambitions within the sector, the subconscious association of men with science can be broken down and the ‘sticky floor’ will get less sticky.

As a new generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians enters the work place with less rigid concepts of gender roles the ‘glass ceiling’ will become irrelevant. Maybe then, instead of looking up to female scientists and female engineers, young people will be able to stand on the shoulders of giants and view the world from the same vantage point.


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May 2022
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