It’s a comment that I’ve heard over and over throughout my time in high school and college: we need more women in STEM. It’s something I believe, too: after all, it just makes sense that women who are capable in those fields shouldn’t be excluded from them. However, I don’t think I ever took that belief completely to heart for most of my life. Even as a physics major in college, where having one or two or even no girls at all in the classroom was completely normal, my belief that was a little less than passionate. Honestly, I think in the back of my head I always believed it was a little bit ridiculous to enforce some kind of quota on the number of women in STEM fields, and that women who truly wanted to be in them would pursue them regardless of the challenges.
Ironically enough, it took me switching my major to English and enrolling in Literature For Young People to realize how foolish I’d been. No longer was I part of a vast male majority, but rather the only guy in the room with sixteen women. At first, this was a somewhat uncomfortable experience. I flailed awkwardly for what to say any time I wanted to make a point, acutely aware of feeling somewhat like an outsider. This didn’t make me drop the class, by any means; I’d wanted to study children’s literature every since I arrived at Yale, after all, and the class was incredibly welcoming and engaging. However, it did make me wonder why more guys didn't take such an interesting class. And in doing so, I realized that the number of women currently in STEM fields is actually an incredibly urgent problem, because it’s far more insidious than I realized.
The problem is not just that women who are motivated and determined to pursue majors and careers in STEM fields will be turned off by being part of a field in which they are the vast minority, although their struggles to gain the respect of their male coworkers are certainly a problem that deserves its own attention. No, the real problem happens long before that, when thousands of young girls curious about STEM, with the potential to become powerhouses in those disciplines, are told both explicitly and implicitly that they don’t belong there, that science is a "man's field" they shouldn't strive for, just as men are told children's literature is a "women's field" not worth their concern or time. Society discourages so many women from ever even giving science a chance, and in doing so hamstrings science.
Today, women make up a slim majority of the world population. To limit science, however unintentionally, to a man’s only field, is to deprive it of half of its potential for great discovery. And to top it off, it’s unfair and limiting to the women who are gently pushed to other fields and who could have achieved great things in science. In other, we really do need more women in STEM, but we need them in STEM far earlier than high school or college. Fixing this problem means creating an environment where women feel that they belong in the sciences just as much as their male counterparts, and that means making sure young girls are exposed to science just as enthusiastically as young boys are. Otherwise we limit women and we limit science, both unthinkable.