The M in STEM Does Not Stand for Men

By Majd El Harake

Cover picture from unesco

Choosing your  major in university might be one of the hardest decisions anyone can make before turning eighteen. At a young age, you are responsible for a life changing decision for your future career. Everyone has a different experience when making this decision. Some people choose a major related to the subjects that they are interested in, others may have a profession set as a life goal since early childhood, and others might even check what job is needed in the market and pursue it even though they don’t have much passion for it.. We like to think that we have freedom when choosing our majors and careers, but is this truly the case with everyone? This essay will shed light on how females still face a lot of hindrances in choosing their major, especially when it relates to STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Women today make up almost half of the total work force worldwide, “yet they account for only about 25% of all people employed in STEM jobs” (Simon et al., 2017). I will be discussing how women are driven away from pursing STEM majors since childhood (3 to 11 years old) and adolescence (12 to 18 years old), in addition to reasons related to the STEM workplace when they grow older.

Literature Review

Factors during Childhood

The events that happen during childhood and adolescence are very critical in determining a person’s  personality traits  in addition to their view on different aspects of life. Our introduction to learning the rules  of society starts from school, where we are exposed to different people from multiple backgrounds, and each individual holds the values that they acquire from their own environment and family. I start off by introducing a theory mentioned in Jiang’s article (2020) about the student’s motivational beliefs in math and science, which is “defined as the self-evaluation of one’s general ability in a specific domain (i.e., can I do the task?)”. In this article, a study was performed on students of an unnamed high school, and the results indicate that female students tend to have lower motivational beliefs in STEM courses compared to their male classmates, although their GPA in STEM courses was higher than that of male students . We should take into consideration that female students were also less likely to take more advanced STEM courses due to their lower self-concept of ability. Similarly, Simon’s article (2017) discusses a case study on a girl named Maribelle, who showed excellent performance in science and math from fourth grade till the seventh grade, but later on preferred to drop her interest in these topics and started perusing “boy chasing” in order to be accepted by her female friends. The reason why females tend to have lower motivational beliefs and being more attracted to doing “typical girl things” is the lack of support they receive from their role models, their teachers. As noted in Simon’s (2017) article, teachers tend to apply gender stereotypes when describing both genders[1] performance in STEM courses, “boys tend to be encouraged to be interested and develop their talents in science, while girls tend to be socialized away from STEM fields.” (Simon et. al, 2017). Teachers actions and words towards their students are highly regarded, whereas when a young female student starts noticing that her teacher is not giving her recognition for being good in math and science like she does with other classmates (males specifically), she would shift her interest and focus on other subjects in order to get that same recognition and praise. Another interesting notice that was mentioned in Simon et. al (2020)’s article is that “mothers talk more about science to sons than daughters, even when daughters initiate talk about science.” The relationship between  a girl and her mother is pivotal and can have a huge impact on her future career choices. Therefore, mothers who adopt the traditional gender roles set by the patriarchy would further drift females away from pursuing STEM related careers due to the lack of self-efficacy in these subjects. As mentioned in Eam et. al (2021) “gender is related to not only biological and psychological but also vocational and cultural dimensions, which means that gender has the potential to interfere with other personal or social variables”, and as seen above, the gender stereotypes adopted by mothers and teachers interfere in female’s educational preferences. 

Factors during Adolescence 

The science industry is considered to be an aggressive and competitive field, which fits the stereotypical masculine traits of being in control and instrumental,  as opposed to the “typical” feminine traits such as “communalism and nurturance” (Simon et. al, 2017). As mentioned in Davidson et. al (2014), one of the outcomes that ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology)  wants to improves is the communication and verbal skills of engineers since it helps in improving the effectiveness of the work field. In a study performed by Simon et. al (2017) to find out the relation between having feminine or masculine traits and choosing to pursue a STEM career, males who were found to have high “masculine” traits were indeed not encouraged by family and teachers to pursue a STEM career because they have high levels of aggressiveness, assertiveness, and competitiveness. They were advised to “pursue career paths that permit the expression of those attributes more than STEM careers do, such as careers in sports, law, business, or politics.” Simon et. al (2017). However, males who were found to score high in having feminine traits were advised to follow a STEM career path since they have the communication skills needed to work in group projects and achieve a better outcome, which is also the goal desired by ABET. However, that same exact study showed that females who had the feminine traits were advised by peers and family to follow career paths that have a more “nurturing” role. This shows that society automatically view males as individuals who have analytical skills and are capable of handling the problems that STEM majors face. Having  “feminine traits” such as communication skills, is a bonus point for males  towards a career in STEM. However, when it comes to females, they are not considered as individuals who possess problem solving skills. As soon as they see the same feminine traits exhibited in females, they redirect her into a career that is “female oriented”. 


            If the struggle of teachers, family, and peers encouraging females  to move away from STEM fields is not enough, another problem rises after they get their degree, and it is the “chilly climate” in the workplace. What is meant by chilly climate in simple terms is, “gender inequality in STEM careers can be at least partially explained by women feeling incompatible with, and discriminated within, science’s masculine culture.” (Simon et. al, 2017). A female scientist stated that “I never wear pink. It’s true. I finally bought something pink when I was pregnant and I thought it was safe to wear pink then…. I don’t mention the fact that I cook or that I sew” (Monroe et. al, 2008). Moreover, a physicist named Howard Georgi shows that there is discrimination against women in science and stated that “From the top down, when department chairs and search committees look for the best scientists, they tend to exclude those who are not demonstrably assertive and single-minded. This tends to eliminate women.” (Simon et. al, 2017). It is evident that since STEM fields are male dominated, women often find themselves vulnerable to criticism for not being good enough for the job, as seen by the scientist who was not comfortable  wearing a “feminine color”. It is also clear why women avoid presenting themselves as “typical” females who cook and sew due to the pre-formed image of women that scientists have, to avoid feeding into the idea that these traits lead to a less assertive individual and thus, not being capable of becoming a “good scientist”. 


            In order to know if the findings of existing research is also evident in my community, I interviewed 2 females (who preferred to be unnamed and I will refer to them as Jane and Joelle) and a male (who also preferred to be unnamed and will referred to as Moe) to know if there were any factors that led them to choose their current major/career path.

            Jane has a bachelor’s degree in biology and continued to get her MD last year. When asked if she was happy with her choice she confirmed, but when asked if she had other plans in mind when she was an adolescent, her answer was that she wanted to become a mechanical engineer. Unfortunately, she was told by her family members that this job is “technical” and it does not suit her as a woman who aspires to have a family one day. She does not regret graduating from med school, but the family factor was present in choosing her career path.

            Joelle is a second year electrical engineering student. She is happy with her choice of major, and when asked if she faced any challenges before enrolling in a bachelors of engineering, she answered that her male friends in school always told her that she won’t be up for it since it is a competitive major that is demanding and not an easy choice. However, she decided  to prove them wrong, and she will when she graduates in three years. As seen from this case, the pressure from the male friends is evident even before entering the workplace, which shows that “chilly climate” mentioned above is found since school years.

Moe is currently studying biology and is willing to do his masters in microbiology. He also stated that he is happy with his choice, however he did not face any challenges while choosing his major from anyone. However, he noted that he performed well in school in mathematics, physics, and biology. People constantly assumed that he would be pursuing a degree in engineering, and were surprised that he chose biology. Although this individual did not have specific hindrances, the fact that people directly assumed he would be majoring in  engineering without thinking of any other option further fits the narrative that engineering is a male oriented career.


            In conclusion, it is now very evident that many factors affect women’s choice of major and that they lack the freedom that their male counterparts have. Females are directed since childhood to stay away from STEM majors and careers. The lack of attention from teachers and the relationship between females and their mothers who adopt the stereotypical gender roles all lead to a lower self-efficacy in STEM courses. In addition, females who manage to get their degrees will face another problem, which is being intimidated and discriminated against by males in the work field. We should be working on breaking the continuous chain of typical gender roles and give females actual freedom when choosing their career. We should change our attitude towards them especially at home and school, since childhood and adolescence are the most critical phases in personality formation. Fixing these problems will eventually mitigate the effects of the “chilly-climate” in the work place.


Davison, M. L., Jew, G. B., & Davenport, E. C. (2014). Patterns of SAT scores, choice of STEM major, and gender. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 47(2), 118-126.

Jiang, S., Simpkins, S. D., & Eccles, J. S. (2020). Individuals’ math and science motivation and their subsequent STEM choices and achievement in high school and college: A longitudinal study of gender and college generation status differences. Developmental Psychology, 56(11), 2137-2151.

Monroe, K., Ozyurt, S., Wrigley, T., & Alexander, A. (2008). Gender equality in academia: Bad news from the trenches, and some possible solutions. Perspectives on Politics, 6(2), 215-233.

Phyrom Eam, Borin Keo, Phirom Leng, Sopheak Song & Sothy Khieng (2021). Correlates of STEM major choice: a quantitative look at Cambodian university freshmen, Research in Science & Technological Education, 39:2, 206-224, doi:10.1080/02635143.2019.1682987

Simon, R. M., Wagner, A., & Killion, B. (2017). Gender and choosing a STEM major in college: Femininity, masculinity, chilly climate, and occupational values. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 54(3), 299-323.

[1] By both genders, I refer to males and females without including other genders

Edited by Daniella Razzouk

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