On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Problem of Gender Diversity in STEM Is Clear | Opinion

As a scientist and a university professor, my classroom is typically full of an equal mix of men and women from diverse backgrounds. My teaching experience reminds me daily that enthusiasm about science, and keen insights, can come from any student, regardless of their gender, race, or socioeconomic background.

At the same time, numerous studies have shown that STEM programs and professional science lack gender diversity, as well as diversity along other axes like race and socioeconomic status.

In my field, the Earth Sciences, recent research reveals that no progress on diversity has been made in 40 years. The study found that the Earth Sciences lack diversity at all degree levels, and remains one of the least diverse disciplines across STEM fields.

The lack of diversity in the sciences is cause for concern, for multiple reasons. Diversity has been shown to have an instrumental value. Many have argued that a more diverse STEM workforce brings new perspectives to the table, resulting in more innovation. Diversity is therefore good for the overall health of the field.

However, these utilitarian arguments can sometimes miss a larger truth. As an educator, one of my major responsibilities is to help all students, regardless of background, reach their full potential. Similarly, our educational system has a moral obligation to foster the success of all students, regardless of their background. In this light, a lack of gender diversity in STEM represents a failure of our educational institutions to encourage and support the enthusiasm for science I see amongst the young women in my classes.

Today, February 11, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This UN-recognized day aims to raise awareness of gender inequality in science and technology with the ultimate goal of ending gender inequality in STEM fields.

Women STEM
Representative image of women in STEM. February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. iStock

While it is hopefully not the only day of the year we consider these issues, this day provides a forum to discuss the ways in which our institutions can work better to support women and girls in science. It is also critical to consider the intersections of gender and other axes of difference, including race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background.

Simple actions can help encourage diverse students to consider careers in STEM. In high school and college classes, featuring the work of women and minority scientists can challenge students' preconceived notions of what a working scientist looks like.

For many students, personal attention from a faculty mentor can be key to staying in a STEM degree program.

"Persistence of undergraduate women in geoscience-related majors is related to the number of female STEM career role models they identify, as their odds of persisting approximately doubles for each role model they identify."#MentoringMonth #WomenInSciencehttps://t.co/pzcOq70Qmc pic.twitter.com/Gs8VcuPXOX

— ESWN (@ESWNtweets) January 8, 2020

There are also more systematic policies that can help promote diversity. Providing livable research stipends to undergraduate and graduate researchers can allow students who lack independent means to pursue full-time research internships. In addition, much work has yet to be done to combat systematic and implicit bias in graduate school admissions as well as university hiring.

These are just a few of the many changes that can help ensure that our institutions of higher education foster the success of young women and students with diverse backgrounds.

Tripti Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.