For MPOWER Financing’s Women in STEM Scholarship Program, we asked applicants to write an essay answering the question “What are the biggest barriers facing women and girls pursuing education and careers in STEM in your country?” More than 180 women from over 50 countries responded, providing a fascinating (and sobering) look at the barriers faced by women in STEM around the globe and sharing vivid examples from their own life.
Perhaps surprisingly, despite this group’s cultural diversity, the barriers reported did not vary much. The most commonly cited impediments to women’s advancement in STEM included gender disparities in caregiving responsibilities (mentioned by 61 percent of respondents); sexist hiring practices, including tests of physical strength and/or concerns about women’s strength, safety on the job, or suitability for the role (56 percent); a lack of female role models in STEM (50 percent); and fears (which, sadly, often materialize) of sexual or other harassment or discrimination (46 percent).
Some barriers were more frequently cited by women from certain regions, however. While two-thirds of women from Latin America included a lack of female role models as a factor, only one-third of women from Asia suggested it as a major barrier.
Many women wrote about how cultural attitudes work against women in the job search process, detailing the way women’s physical appearance is scrutinized as well as interviewers’ concerns about women’s strength, stamina, and overall suitability for the workplace.
According to many of our scholarship applicants, too many people in their country still believe that women are not adequately prepared for STEM. Further, oftentimes women’s alleged lack of physical strength is cited as a reason that they are not suited to these kinds of jobs. In their essays, many women said that they frequently hear that “men are just better” or “women are too weak” to handle certain tasks.
Hye Min, a Doctor of Pharmacy student from South Korea, wrote about her experience with this issue. “I was disappointed to find that my interviewer didn’t spend much time testing my knowledge and ability as a potential research assistant but [instead] had me walk around the lab lifting various equipment,” she wrote. “Perhaps I was rejected from this position due to my personal [deficiencies] as a candidate, but I couldn’t help wondering if the results would have been different if I was ‘strong’ enough to lift the equipment.”
Min Sook, a Korean biology student, also noted that women, unlike men, are judged during the hiring process based, at least partly, on their physical appearance. “In Korea, job applicants are required to attach photos to their résumé. During interviews, women encounter interviewers making snide remarks about their appearance, causing many to consider plastic surgery to improve their chance[s] in [their] career. They’re frequently judged [more] for their appearance than [for] their merits, and in a field dominated by men like STEM, this inequality is evident.”
Fabiola, a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Honduras, also encountered sexist hiring practices. She notes that for STEM jobs in the field, especially in rural areas, employers tend to hire men. “The reasoning is in part to ‘protect’ women, as remote locations are seen as dangerous [for women],” she said.
Many of the essays also described the multitude of ways in which women are discouraged from even attempting to enter a STEM field. Students hear horror stories of sexual harassment or are told from a young age that they will fail in those careers. Subsequently, it is no surprise how few women in these countries choose to pursue a path they know is riddled with hurdles.
Sometimes STEM students have poor experiences with their professors even before they start in their career. “One of [my classmates] was told by a male professor in class that she wasn’t in the right place, which made her question her own capabilities,” wrote Angelica, a Master of Civil Engineering student from Brazil “[Another] had to face sexual harassment when asked for help [on] a test by the same person,” she wrote.
Luisa, a Mathematics and Computer Science student from Brazil, also wrote about harassment from professors. “Professors [kept] saying sexist phrases like, ‘Men have the same ease with Math like a woman [is at ease with] washing the dishes.”
“I sat in a Kuala Lumpur conference room with the project’s construction and design team,” Jin Rui, a master’s student at NYU from Malaysia, described in her discussion of how she bore the brunt of similar sexist comments in the workplace. “It was my first on-site meeting and I will never forget the glint in the contractor’s eyes as he glanced at me, the only woman in the room, before joking about how off-brand construction materials age the same way most women do: ‘Poorly.’”
The majority of scholarship applicants listed domestic responsibilities as a major barrier to workplace advancement. Many expressed hopes that if and when domestic duties, such as childcare and homemaking, are shared more equitably, equity in the workplace will follow. Sixty-one percent of our applicants cited traditional female roles in the home as a barrier to pursuing their education or career in STEM, and almost half of those women are from India.
As Apurva from India explained, “It is assumed that women, after childbirth, are unable to stay dedicated to their [work] roles.”
“I found that mostly when women finish their college or master’s degree, people around them care more about when she will get married and have a child than what will be her career goal,” wrote Minyu, a Master of Science in Information Systems student from China.
Alice, an architecture student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, similarly explained the domestic pressures in her home country. “Most girls in my country are taught to become perfect wives for their future husbands who need a wife,” she wrote.
Half of our female scholarship applicants cited a lack of female role models as a barrier to increasing the number of women in STEM. Sedinam from Ghana, a master’s student at Stanford, explained this problem eloquently, “It is more difficult for people to become what they cannot see.”
But many of the inspiring women in our applicant pool are actively working to increase gender equality in their fields. As just a few examples, applicants have started clubs to promote women in leadership, created online forums for female students and their families, and tutored science students at a women’s resource center.
MPOWER is proud to support female students worldwide in pursuing their dreams, and our Women in STEM Scholarship program is just one of the many ways we work toward gender equality. We see it as one tool of many in the fight to increase the number of female role models in STEM, particularly in emerging markets, and to inspire more women and girls to pursue STEM careers. Great role models can be found in our most recent batch of winners, which include an African immunologist fighting lupus, an innovative engineering student from Vietnam, and an accomplished aspiring aerospace engineer from Sri Lanka.
We’ve also expanded how we approach women as a target audience. In the past year, we’ve increased our outreach to women-serving organizations in emerging markets and, as a result, increased the percentage of our borrowers who are female from 44 to 47 percent. That’s significant because our survey data (described in further detail in our social impact report) shows that women in emerging markets face not only cultural hurdles to pursuing their dreams, but also financial barriers that exceed those facing their male counterparts. In fact, 93 percent of our female borrowers reported that they had no way to finance their degree other than MPOWER – versus 79 percent of male borrowers.
In addition, we’re focused on improving the education pipeline for women and girls. We are proud to support the Malala Fund’s work to increase girls’ secondary school enrollment and graduation in some of the places where women are most underrepresented in the workforce, including India, Pakistan, and Nigeria – all important markets for MPOWER. To show our commitment, for every loan closed and funded between August 12, 2019, and December 31, 2019, MPOWER is donating $25 to Malala Fund.
We look forward to the day when we won’t need to offer a Women in STEM Scholarship Program because women won’t face any gender-specific barriers to entering the field. Until then, however, we’re committed to working on multiple fronts to remove barriers for women in STEM and to create a more diverse, more equitable workforce.
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