Gender bias, family life, mentoring and stereotyping are significant factors contributing to gender disparity in STEM research: MUT study

Dr Bheka Ntshangase, one of the researchers and writers

A study by Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) academics, comparing women’s presence and roles in science research for five years in eight continental regions of the world, has identified four significant factors contributing to gender disparity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This study has been generating coverage across various news media outlets, highlighting the significance of gender parity in education.

The study, which is titled Gender parity among researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, was recently published in the journal of Entrepreneurship and Sustainability Issues (Volume 9, Number 4). It  used data from a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) scientific report focusing on the five years from 2013 to 2017.

“Extant research suggests that women actively seek Bachelors and Masters degrees and even outnumber men at these levels, accounting for 53% of graduates, but their numbers decrease precipitously at the doctoral level. Furthermore, men account for 72% of the global pool of researchers, widening the gender gap even further,” the study explained.

Authored by MUT academics and researchers, Dr Steven Msosa, a Lecturer in the Department of Marketing; Dr Bheka Ntshangase, the Acting Dean of Management Sciences; and Dr Courage Mlambo, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Management Sciences, the study found that gender bias, family life, mentoring, and stereotyping are the main causes of gender disparity in STEM researchers.

In terms of gender bias, the study found that half of the women in STEM careers reported having experienced gender-based discrimination in the form of “earning less than a man doing the same job”, “being treated as incompetent”, “experiencing repeated minor insults in the workplace”, along with “receiving less support from senior leaders than a man doing the same job”.

For women STEM researchers, these challenges are coupled with having to work in a male-dominated profession and environment which is not women-friendly. To cope with these challenges, women STEM researchers “…must be highly resilient in the face of gender-biased sentiments. At the same time, they must identify their place, submit themselves to predominantly masculine workplace culture, demonstrate strong performance dedication, and avoid uncomfortable situations,” the study explained.

In terms of family life, the study identified the absence of gender-sensitive policies as a greater contributor towards the lack of support for women to progress in STEM research. Furthermore, the lack of a gender-sensitive promotion system is also a barrier to women’s professional development.

“Many women who work in research must combine their careers with caring for their children,” the study stated. “Having a solid support structure from their family has been critical for many women.”

The availability of role models and mentors adds to the professional development of women in STEM. It is fellow female mentors who assist in creating confidence in women’s ability to succeed in STEM.

“Young women with successful female STEM professionals (such as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists) foster a proper understanding of STEM fields and access to female role models,” explained the study.

The study also identified stereotypes as the final major determinant of women’s success in STEM careers.

“Stereotypes hamper the test performance of ability-stigmatised groups, and they fail to reach their full potential,” the study commented. “This is an essential channel for explaining why girls perform worse in mathematics when they are assigned to more biased teachers, but it is also broadly relevant because it suggests that exposure to gender stereotypes is at least partially responsible for women’s lower self-confidence in scientific fields.”

This study is an important step towards identifying the causes of and finding solutions to gender disparities in STEM studies globally. It suggests social, behavioural and policy interventions to support women to succeed in STEM fields.