Women Battles Stereotypes in the Sciences


(Daily Utah Chronicle archive photo)

By Kylee Ehmann


(Daily Utah Chronicle archive photo)
(Daily Utah Chronicle archive photo)

If someone asked you to describe a typical science major, you’d probably imagine a man. But that gendered stereotype is about to change.


Each year more women are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at the U. The percentage of the undergraduate women in the College of Science grew from 18 percent in 1970 to 44 percent last Fall Semester, according to the Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis. Despite this growth, stigmas often surround the women pursuing science degrees.

Feeling Inferior

One of these stereotypes is that women are not as smart or capable as men in STEM fields. Alexandra Kent, a senior in chemistry, said the majority of her classmates in math and physics courses are men.

“You almost get the feeling that you have to prove yourself,” Kent said. “Like, ‘I’m a woman, I’m in science, I can do just as good as you.’ ”

She feels being in the minority in these classes has made her work harder.

Ariel Herbert-Voss, a junior in computer science and applied mathematics, said if a woman is going to be taken seriously in computer science they “have to act very masculine.” But this isn’t without costs.

“There’s a lot of pressure to not let my gender down,” she said.

Jennifer Heemstra, a female professor in the Department of Chemistry, said there are implicit biases when comparing the accomplishments of women to men.

“Women are viewed as having accomplished less than their male peers, even if their accomplishments are actually equal,” she said.

Herbert-Voss said despite her accomplishments, she sometimes feels she does not deserve her success. And she’s not alone — many women in science experience a form of the imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where people are unable to internalize their success because they feel they are frauds in their field.

Underrepresentation in Faculty Positions

Women are also not represented equally with their male counterparts in faculty positions. Heemstra said it’s important for students to interact with female professors because “interacting with … women in leadership positions can provide students with role models.” Heemstra helped Kent while she was in the U’s ACCESS Program, a seven-week summer program for incoming first-year female students interested in pursuing a career in science. Kent said working with Heemstra helped her gain research opportunities she otherwise would have missed.

Herbert-Voss said the School of Computing has made it an active goal to increase the number of women enrolling. Each semester the women on the faculty take the female students to lunch to answer questions and give advice.


Another part of the gender stereotype is how women dress. Kent said people expect her to be “geeky, less groomed [and] less concerned with appearances” because she’s in science. While she enjoys the nerdy things in life, she also enjoys being feminine, wearing makeup and dressing well.

“I get a lot of surprised faces when I say I’m a woman in chemistry,” she said.

Differences in Science Fields

The two STEM departments at the U with the lowest numbers of women are the Department of Physics and the Department of Mathematics, where women accounted for 21 percent and 34 percent, respectively, Fall Semester 2014.

Biology has the most women in any field of science at the U with just under 50 percent of its undergraduates. This enrollment rate reflects national numbers. In an article in Gender & Society titled “Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science,” researchers interviewed scientists about why there were more women in biology. Male and female scientists cited gender discrimination, but men were more likely to say it took place before college and women said it continued in university life.

The study also found that physics was associated with hard, abstract math, which some participants suggested was better suited for men. Women respondents said this difference was due to discrimination rather than innate differences.

Moving Forward

Kent said she has noticed many positive changes for women going into the sciences and sees these changes continuing at the U.

“We’re seeing less of the typical woman that stays at home and takes care of children,” she said. “As women’s equality continues and the fight for women’s rights is improving, women are feeling more empowered to do science and engineering, and I think this just has to continue.”

Tina Xu, a junior in biology, said she thinks it’s important for women in science to mentor young girls so this progress carries on.

“Women in science at the U are in a really good place,” Xu said. “They should be really proud of what they’ve already accomplished, and they should be excited for what they’ll accomplish in the future.”

Heemstra said it’s important for women and all gender and ethnic groups to be represented in science.

“If the researchers in the field only represent a portion of the population,” she said, “then the pool of unique thoughts and ideas can also end up being limited, hindering important discoveries.”

[email protected]