Gender gaps in STEM fields and majors are well-documented. Far more men than women study these subjects and enter the workforce.
Obviously this is a complex issue caused by multiple factors. Gender bias in hiring leads to less women joining the industry. Once women are at their jobs, hostile work environments (the deep-seated sexism in most STEM fields, prevalence of sexual harassment, etc) cause women to leave in greater numbers than men. The double bind that women face (Too nice = not strong enough to be a leader. Too strong = bitch) and cultural resistance to viewing women in leadership positions make it difficult for women to be promoted. Continuing assumptions about women's role as the primary caregiver and shitty US parental leave policies and work culture make it very difficult for women who choose to take an active role at home or to take a break to be seen as committed as her male counterpart with a stay-at-home wife.
So there's a problem with the industry and how it treats women once they enter. But what about girls in school? As kids grow up, less and less girls are interested in math and science. By the time they reach college, woman make up 40% of STEM majors (hey, not bad), 60% of biology majors (whoa) but only 18% of engineering majors (aw)*.
Anecdotally, I'm sure most of us can verify this. Starting around middle school when we could choose our classes, I saw a gradual departure of my female friends from the advanced math and science courses. In college, computer science and engineering was a complete sausage-fest, and in my job as a software developer, I'm almost always one of the only women in the room (awesome when I need to pee, awful the rest of the time).
Again, there are many complex external reasons for this attrition. It's well-documented that teachers call on boys far more often than girls in classes. Stereotypes about who is good at math and science mean that boys are more often encouraged to join accelerated classes or praised for being inherently good at the subject. Being a female nerd who knows all the answers is not socially favorable. We're not kind to male nerds either, but there's definitely a place in society for a guy who knows all the answers. Furthermore, hobby groups for tech tend to be populated by dickish know-it-alls who are incredibly hostile to newbies, especially female newbies. **
(Okay, now I'm depressed. If you are too, go watch this trailer for Girl Rising and be amazed at the next generation of girls coming up. )
So that was a lot of context to lead into what I really wanted to talk about — how stereotypes influence our skill at math.
First off, I'm going to say that one of the most harmful ideas we have is that a person's skill at math is innate. I've heard this over and over again — either you're good at math, or you inherently suck at math and there's no hope for you. Like some Calvinist predestination theory where some people are just born to be condemned to a hellish math-deprived existence. I hear people I know shrug and say "I'm bad at math" and it drives me crazy. Have you ever heard someone write themselves off as being "bad" at reading or "bad" at history or literary analysis or whatever with the same frequency as with math?
The Atlantic had a great article last year that did a pretty good job summarizing the topic:
Believing that math skill is innate just leads to people giving up more easily. When they get a bad grade on a test or are completely confused by a problem, instead of thinking "Oh man, I need to practice more", they think "I'm hopeless at math" and stop trying.
I think gender stereotypes really, really exacerbate this tendency. Not only do you start off with the idea that people are either inherently good or inherently bad at math, but now you have the underlying assumption that people who are good at math are people who aren't like you. Whereas a guy might have to fail a few times before he decides he's just not good at math, a girl who buys into these stereotypes will be more likely to see any failure as a sign that she's not meant to do math.
(Or you could make with the internalized misogyny like younger me and believe that all girls suck at math besides you because you're some special snowflake. Ah, narcissism. Lets you excel at math but at the cost of being a giant sexist asshole.)
I think the willingness to keep on pushing through adversity and failure is a huge benefit to the engineering discipline (maybe other STEM fields, but all I know is computers). You need to have faith that although your program is all jacked up right now and you have no idea why (or your homework assignment, or a problem you're working on), there is a logical explanation for what's going on, and therefore a fix for it.
Honestly, half the time, I hop onto Google and either paste the error message or type out a brief summary of what's happening. I used to feel like a fraud for doing this before realizing that every single person I know in the industry does the same thing. Not knowing everything doesn't mean you're bad at something, it just makes you like everyone else.
I like math and think I'm good at it, so let me give some other examples of other places my innate assumptions about what I'm bad at (or shouldn't be doing) as a result of gender have held me back.
* My dad always handled financial matters and I think I internalized that because I've always felt vaguely stressed out by money-related issues. I'm slowly getting over this and I definitely have to keep reminding myself that learning about money and finance is just like any other skill.
* Circuits and soldering. I might enjoy coding and computers, but hands-on work always seemed so intimidating. I did some projects with this recently and was shocked at how easy it was when I set my mind to it. Why did I avoid this all my life?
On a similar note, I really think this is the same principle that leads to men doing less housework or childcare. Not necessarily that they think they're bad at it, but that they unconsciously don't feel like it's something that they need to do, that other people are better-suited to it.
I know that a lot of people genuinely hate math and feel like they're awful at it. I can admit that there are people who really are hopeless at math. But anecdotally, I hear far more women saying this than I hear men saying it. I heard this cited by several female friends as a reason for dropping out of advanced math when less-apt male friends stayed in. If we take everyone who says this at face value and assume they made this decision honestly and in a cultural vacuum free of any stereotype influence, then the only conclusion we can reach is that girls really are inherently much worse at math than boys.
I don't want to make anyone feel bad for their choices or their major (or for not liking math). At the same time, I think it's important to recognize the societal pressures and assumptions that form the context for these choices.
* sources for percentage of college majors
** sources for gender bias in schools