We cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who seek it will achieve full equality of opportunity. But if women are to start moving towards that goal, we must believe in ourselves or no one else will believe in us; we must match our aspirations with the competence, courage and determination to succeed.
These are the words of Rosalyn Yalow, a medical physicist and Nobel prize awardee in 1977. Forty years later, an immediate future of equality of opportunity remains doubtful for most of the women in many parts of the globe. And most assuredly while women today are making significant contributions to the areas of science and technology, they are still underrepresented, a pressing issue in both developed and underdeveloped countries. Although many women today earn their fair share of bachelor degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), they remain underrepresented because many of them end their career at the bachelor level, not pursuing further higher studies in the field. This reflects the fact that it’s not the lack of will and determination of STEM women preventing them from excelling professionally, but the fact that there are immense challenges that women face as they advance in their careers. One of the greatest challenges faced by STEM women is the choice they make between a science career and raising a family.
It takes five to six years of doctoral education and then several years of post‐doctoral training to attain an intensive research experience and a good publication record before one can apply for tenure-track STEM positions in academia. A recent study published in PubMed Central by Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci reported that the average age of a STEM research fellow applying for tenure‐track professor job is around + 35 years, an age at which the fertility of women is already on the decline. Another study by Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden reports that only one in three women who acquire a fast-track professor position before having children ever becomes a mother. Both these studies noted findings suggesting STEM women in western society are not being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants, tenure, and journal publications because of their sex thereby indicating for women pursuing higher positions in academia having a family is the challenge. In the wake of the hurdles posed by the biology of their own bodies and because of sentiments attached to motherhood, it seems most of STEM women give priority to the family, which ultimately puts an end to their scientific career. Apart from the weight of motherhood, there are social, cultural, and organizational barriers that further keep women away from science and, depending on which part of the globe we are, these range from subtle to intimidating. In developing countries there is an added drag of regressive society, fewer opportunities, lack of awareness, a dearth of role models, and gender inequality further restricting the growth of women in STEM fields.
However, one thing that can help globally to change the not so bright state of women’s representation in STEM is to implement strategies that focus on encouraging and promoting girls in STEM at the school level. Although the retention of women in STEM at higher levels is rather gloomy, many organizations and NGOs are making commendable contributions to enhance girl participation in STEM. Most importantly, there are women in science who have surpassed all these barriers to become great scientists and who have inspired all of us to devise ways that are instrumental in retaining the women scientists in STEM. May-Britt Moser, who discovered the cells that collaborate to constitute a positioning system in the brain, and Tu Youyou, who did groundbreaking research on anti-malaria medicine, are recent examples of phenomenal women scientists who have also raised families. Because of the successes and realities of many such women scientists many universities now offer scholarships, childcare support, and part‐time tenure track jobs to assist women having children to stay in science. But, a lot remains to be done. It’s time that as a society valuing education and science, we raise up to be fair and just to STEM women and not punish them for raising families, something so important and vital to the human existence. The onus is on the academic institutes to make and shape the policies that are conducive to the entry, growth, and success of women in STEM despite challenges. Let’s support women in their STEM pursuits as they strengthen their place in the world and take forward innovation, discovery, and technology.