STEM: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes

Duy Nguyen

In a recent survey, people were asked to name female tech leaders. Many said “Alexa” and “Siri.”

Alarming, isn’t it? When LivePerson asked a representative sample of 1,000 American consumers to name a female technology leader, 91.7% of respondents weren’t able to think of any. Of the remaining 8.3%, only 4% actually could name one, and a quarter of those cited Siri or Alexa.

When we break down the numbers, this represents only about 10 people in the survey group. But that’s 10 people out of 1000 for whom the most famous woman in tech is a virtual assistant. How many more people could that be when you expand the sample size?

Meanwhile, more than half of the respondents were able to correctly identify a male leader in tech, with Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg topping that list. Not only do these results highlight a lack of high-profile women in tech leadership roles, but it also reflects the tech industry’s persistent problem with gender inequality. While there are many reasons and arguments as to why STEM fields are male-dominated, the underrepresentation of women in STEM roles is a real problem, with only 24% of jobs in STEM fields held by women, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Arguments such as “women wouldn’t be interested in science or tech jobs anyway,” and “if they really wanted to work in STEM roles, they would” (yes, these are actual arguments that I have heard people say) are narrow-minded and miss the point.

One factor is the general perception that many people have of STEM fields, gleaned largely from media portrayals. A survey of films made between 1931 and 1984 showed that most portrayed scientists as villains (fewer than 1% portrayed them as the hero). Since then, teenagers interested in STEM have often been portrayed as nerdy social outcasts, ridiculed by the “cooler” kids at school. In a phenomenon often referred to as an “accidental curriculum,” people do learn from film and television, whether or not they are aware of it.

If you asked people to close their eyes and describe what they picture when they think of a scientist, an engineer, a programmer, or even a physics professor, most would probably describe a male. In fact, since 1983, repeated studies have shown that when children are asked to draw a scientist, they overwhelmingly draw old white men. Children usually cited film or cartoon characters as their main source of inspiration, and in the original research, children drew these stereotypical characteristics more and more frequently as they grew older.

Fortunately, this often-misguided perception of STEM professionals is changing for the better. One study found that adults in 2001 were much less likely to hold negative stereotypes about scientists than they were in 1983. They were also more likely to consider a STEM career a good choice for their children or themselves.

This is also starting to improve in the film and television industry also. For example, the popular Marvel movie franchise has not only sought to provide more scientifically accurate references by consulting with actual scientists, but also the films also promote a more diverse culture in an effort to change the perception of the STEM field.

For example, the original “Thor” comic had Natalie Portman’s character, Jane Foster, portrayed as a nurse. The writers and physicists consulted for the Marvel Cinematic Universe version thought it would make more sense if her character was actually a physicist who was studying the wormhole that brought Thor to Earth. It’s a good place to start breaking down gender stereotypes, along with cultural, ethnic, and societal ones.

Plenty of evidence shows that organizations and industries with a more diverse workforce enjoy better reputations, but they also see advantages such as increased profitability, greater innovation, and a broader talent pool. In fact, some research also suggests that many consumers would trust big tech companies to be more ethical if women were at the helm.

While the gender gap is slowly closing, STEM industries have a long way to go to create an environment that welcomes all types of workers.

For more on women in technology, see Women In Tech: Taking On The Gender Divide On Their Terms.

Duy Nguyen

About Duy Nguyen

Duy Nguyen is focused on providing trends and insights on Millennial behaviour and the digital innovation of HR. He is an HCM Consultant at SAP SuccessFactors based in Sydney, Australia. As a member of the Solution Architecture and Advisory team, he works with the broader sales & services team, and customers, to provide insights on HR best practices and help organizations simplify human resources processes, support talent development, and maximize employee engagement to transform strategies into measurable business outcomes.