Treatment of Women in STEM and Overcoming Discrimination

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Personal circumstances can be classified as intimate conditions that can affect a person’s way of life, attitude, and success. These circumstances may be positive or negative and may influence someone’s career, relationships and day-to-day activities. For some, race and/or sex may invoke privilege or contribute to success, especially within a career. However, this is not the case for everyone. For many African Americans, being racially profiled and discriminated against is expected. In addition, many women face unequal treatment compared to their male counterparts. In the workplace, being black or a woman can lead to having little to no voice in a career, with a lack of representation, and frequent dismissal of one’s achievements. This phenomenon transcends all areas of study, but the fields of mathematics and the natural sciences truly demonstrate how their needs to be an immediate reexamination of personal biases in the workplace.

Gender Inequality in STEM

At a special event for the United Nations, British actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson once asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” (Watson “HeForShe”) She was referencing gender equality. Women are consistently underrepresented within careers dealing with natural science, as the field is traditionally male-dominated. Even though women are constantly making more strides within these fields, many still believe it is unusual for them to have careers in chemistry, biology, physics and other subtopics of natural science.

An example of this blatant inequality within the workplace is the fact that social psychologists, Moss-Racusin et al. found through an experimental approach that scientists rated a female candidate for a technician position to be less competent and hireable than a male candidate with an identical academic background. The job in question within this study was for a laboratory management position. This study found that one of the main factors for female scientists being discriminated against is because they are expected to perform better than a man, when completing the exact same job (Moss-Racusin 16475). This discrimination occurs usually without repurcussions, but Moss-Racusin et al found concrete evidence that the personal circumstance of gender is a definitive factor for success and equality in the workplace. This study brings light to the treatment of equally qualified men and women who are pursuing scientific careers. Such gender bias against women contributes to the infamous productivity gap because it implies that a woman scientist needs to outperform a man to be perceived and evaluated as similar.In addition to women facing discrimination purely for their gender, African Americans face discrimination in scientific and mathematical careers for both their gender and their race.

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Hidden Figures: African American Pioneers

An example of this discrimination can be seen in the careers of Mary Jackson, Sue Wilder, Dorothy Vaughn, Kathyrn Peddrew, Eunice Smith, Barbara Holly and Katherine Johnson. These women are all mathematics pioneers whose work was instrumental to some of the nation’s greatest achievements in space exploration, but they were still widely discriminated against for their race and gender. For example, Katherine Johnson is just one of these brilliant women, whose work within the field of orbital mechanics paved the way for NASA during the first crewed spaceflights. However, the brilliance of her work meant little within the social norms of the workplace as she was relegated to segregated bathrooms and dining areas. And in the Jim Crow South, a gaggle of white men thought nothing of making Johnson drink coffee from a separate percolator marked “colored” (Leeds 2017). These women are some of the most brilliant mathematicians that NASA has ever seen, but the discrimination that was commonplace during their careers almost caused their work to not be seen and heavily utilized. Their now publicized story demonstrates the notion that no matter how intelligent or qualified someone may be, their race and sex can cause their intelligence and skills to be extensively undermined.

African American women continously have and almost have had their life’s work ruined due to discrimination and their personal circumstances. Discrimination against women in mathematics begins long before they enter the workplace. It begins in education. Before many women even cement themselves in the fields of natural science or mathematics, they are ridiculed and faced with obstacles that men will never have to deal with. For instance, some educational institutions did not allow women to study within their schools, purely due to the notion that women were unfit for careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, like mathematics. The University of Cambridge, a famed institution located in the United Kingdom, first opened its doors in the year 1209. However, women were not permitted to attend until 1869 (Rawlins 2019). According to Dr. Lucy Delap, exhibition co-curator to The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge, the first female students were required to ask permission to attend lectures, were not allowed to take exams without permission, and had to be accompanied by chaperones in public until after World War I. These obstacles interfered with the women’s education, humiliating and slowing their progress.

After 1947, women may have been able to get degrees at Cambridge, yet little changed in other respects and progress towards gender equality in mathematics has been glacially slow. In 1947, Mary Cartwright was the first female mathematician to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, but was not deemed worthy of a professorship. The first woman to be elected to a professorship in Cambridge was the applied mathematician Anne Davis in 2002. This blatant discrimantion due to gender is still prominent today as there has still not been a female professor in pure mathematics at Cambridge.Another example of race impairing how seriously knowledge is taken be demonstrated through the life of the famous American chemist, Dr. Percy Julian. When he was beginning his academic career, very few people close to Julian encouraged him to pursue a career in natural science. Luckily, he did not listen. But Julian faced challenges as no matter how gifted a Black student was, they were not expected nor immensely encouraged to attend college. Julian attended multiple universities where he encountered racism and obstacles preventing him from gaining a Ph.D in chemistry at Harvard University, until he moved to Austria and began his doctorate at the University of Vienna. (Kettler 2015) He confronted numerous challenges pertaining to his race, in order to become one of the most influential chemists in American history. He is a pioneer in chemical substances of birth control, steroids, and more. His work assisted thousands of those affected by rheumatoid arthritis. Julian once again demonstrates how personal circumstances may determine how decorate one’s life achievements will be, since it was an immense process for his work to be recognized. 

The Significance of Diversity in the Workplace

It can be argued that racial and ethnic diversity have now become major points of focus in the workplace. Many workers believe that since diversity and equality in the workplace are on the rise, personal circumstances no longer affect how seriously work is taken. However, one’s personal circumstances play a role in how they view the importance of these two topics in the workplace. According to the Pew Research Center, black and white STEM employees rate their employers’ commitment to this issue very differently. Roughly six-in-ten blacks (57%) working in a STEM job say their workplace pays too little attention to increasing racial and ethnic diversity. By comparison, just 15% of whites in this field say this. (Funk, Parker 2018)  In addition, trends in workplace segregation of black women have been thoroughly diminished. Over time, the aggregate occupational segregation of black women has been reduced by more than half—from an index of 69 percent in 1942 to 32 percent in 2008–2010. (Mcgrew 2018) However there is still a lot of work to be done in relation to these issues. Currently, 32 percent of African American women would thus have to change jobs in order to reflect the general distribution of workers among jobs in the economy. While it may seem like workplace issues related to race and gender bias in STEM careers may be diminishing, it really depends on who you ask.


Personal circumstances significantly impact how seriously work in both the careers of mathematics and the natural sciences are taken. Female and African American scientists and mathematicians have consistently been discriminated against in the workplace solely because of their personal circumstances of race and sex. Studies like Moss-Racusin et al. demonstrate the effects of gender bias, even when females and males are equally qualified for the same job in natural science. Instituitions like the University of Cambridge demonstrate the lasting effects of discrimination against female students, as there is still a large gap between the sexes there. Prominent figures such as Katherine Johnson and Dr. Percy Julian depict how racism can cause deeply impactful scientific breakthroughs to almost never occur. Diversity and equality in the workplace may be steadily rising, but the personal circumstances of race and sex will continue to impact how seriously one’s work is taken until the issues are properly addressed.

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