The mechanical and aerospace engineering professor persistently experienced the effects of gender bias early in her professional life, “up until the point at which I was well-known enough [in my career],” she explained.
While attending conferences as a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, she said, she could tell that “the assumption was that [men] were competent until proven otherwise, while the women were incompetent until proven otherwise.”
In light of her experiences, Carter said, she agreed with the findings of a recent study that found that social and environmental factors play a major role in the under-representation of women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — fields.
The study “Why So Few?,” authored by the American Association of University Women, examined how factors such as stereotypes about intelligence and “implicit biases” — or unconsciously formed attitudes — contribute to gender disparity in STEM careers.
Though girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal measure from elementary school to high school, women only earn 20 percent of the total bachelor’s degrees in STEM, and even less at the graduate level, according to the study.
But changes in the gender gap show that girls’ achievements and interest in math and science are heavily influenced by their surrounding environment. Thirty years ago, the ratio of boys to girls who scored above 700 on the math portion of the SAT at age 13 was 13 to 1, while today, the ratio has fallen to 3 to 1, the study reported.
“The rapid increase in the number of girls scoring very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work,” the report stated.
“I was surprised by the power stereotypes have in girls’ performance on tests,” Christianne Corbett, an author of the study, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “Just telling a girl that boys are better at math — or even just bringing up the stereotype that boys are better at math — actually causes girls to do worse on tests. And this finding has been replicated over and over again.”
The study also analyzed implicit biases that exist about women who enter STEM fields. It found, for example, that people are not only more likely to associate math and science with men than with women, but also tend to negatively judge women in “masculine” positions like those of scientists and engineers.
Referencing an earlier Harvard study, the report noted that even staunch gender equality advocates may be affected by these biases without knowing it.
Of the more than half a million people surveyed for the study, “70 percent more readily associate male with science and female with art than the reverse, and this is even among people who professed gender equity,” Corbett said.
Such perceptions affected Cecillia Lui ’11, co-president of the Society of Women Engineers, while she was in high school.
“When I was acquiring administrative approval for taking AP Biology a year earlier than expected ... I encountered a great deal of surprise and even doubt as to my ability to succeed,” she said in an e-mail, adding that the only way to challenge these biases was to excel in challenging courses.
Another roadblock for women entering STEM fields, the study reported, is that the workplace does not have a sufficient support system in place for working mothers to comfortably handle both raising a family and maintaining demanding job schedules, a finding with which Carter also agreed.
“Men are still able to find partners who are happy to be supportive and take care of the home front,” Carter explained. “A lot of women opt out at the graduate level and beyond simply because society has not figured out how to help women have wife equivalents, which is what they need.”
The best way to stem the proliferation of implicit biases against women is to treat children in a way such that they simply never learn them, said Elizabeth Sajewski ’13, a prospective environmental engineering major.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in science so much is that my dad’s a doctor, and I would talk with him all the time about scientific things when I was little,” she explained. “I was always having discussions about how the heart works or why the sky is blue before even going to school, and so I never grew up thinking that science is for boys.”