Why are Women Underrepresented in STEM?

Women continue to be underrepresented in some STEM fields such as computer science and engineering (Cheryan, Ziegler, Montoya, & Jiang, Psych Bulletin, 2017). Our research helps explain these disparities and further examines how to increase women’s participation and success in majority-male fields and careers.

Masculine defaults are an insidious form of gender bias in which characteristics and behaviors typically associated with men are valued, rewarded, and considered standard practice (Cheryan & Markus, Psych Review, 2020). Majority-male departments and workplaces are rife with masculine defaults. The majority of undergraduates hold male-oriented stereotypes that computer scientists are obsessed with technology and socially unskilled (Cheryan, Plaut, Handron, & Hudson, Sex Roles, 2013). When these stereotypes are salient, women report a lower sense of belonging in computer science and express less interest in majoring in the field than their male peers (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, JPSP, 2009). However, these stereotypes can be altered to increase gender equity. For instance, changing the design of computer science classrooms from fitting current stereotypes (e.g., Star Trek posters, video games) to being less stereotypical (e.g., art posters, water bottles) reduces gender disparities in interest in computer science (Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, & Steele, JPSP, 2009; Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, JEP, 2016). Changing computer science stereotypes can also occur by altering media representations (Cheryan, et al., Sex Roles, 2013) and role models (e.g., Cheryan, Siy, Vichayapi, Drury, & Kim, SPPS, 2011). Identifying and dismantling masculine defaults is important to remedy women’s underrepresentation in majority-male fields and occupations.

A second component of masculine culture is negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests in STEM. Children believe that boys are better than girls at computer programming and robots (Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, JECP, 2017) and also believe that girls are less interested in computer science and engineering than are boys (Master, Meltzoff, & Cheryan, PNAS, 2021). These negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests can be altered. Providing first-graders a structured learning opportunity (i.e., robot programming toy to play with for 20 minutes) increases girls’ interest in learning computer science and engineering and reduces gender gaps (Master, Cheryan, & Meltzoff, JEP, 2017).