While the numbers are still unbalanced, women are showing significant gains in STEM fields, accounting for 27 percent of the workforce, compared to only 8 percent in 1970. However, given that women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, compared to 38 percent five decades ago, the STEM fields still have ground to make up to reach equal representation.
Historically, women were not encouraged to pursue science and math education, which fueled the gender gap in the STEM fields. A recent survey found that women in STEM were more than twice as likely to say they are considering leaving the workforce compared to women in other industries. Factors like gender stereotypes, male-dominated cultures, lack of female role models, and math anxiety continue to perpetuate gender STEM gaps. A large pay gaps still exists between men and women in STEM, with women earning around 74 percent of men’s median earnings.
While great strides have been made in closing the gender gap, the STEM fields are still falling short in many ways. To learn how the field has changed, and the importance of representation in STEM, we spoke with three science superstars about their experience as women in STEM: Dr. Sugata Banerjee: a gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Surita Banerjee, a surgical resident at BronxCare Health System, and Dr. Maha Radhakrishnan, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Biogen.
In your early life, how were you exposed to STEM? Was that something girls were encouraged to pursue?
Sugata: In my early life, women were more of homemakers. People thought a career suitable for women would be that of a teacher, professor or something like that. In most lower-middle-class and middle-class families, boys were given the most education, especially in STEM. Women were considered unable to understand mathematics and science.
Surita: I grew up in India, fortunately in a very matriarchal family of doctors. So I was exposed to medicine and science at a very young age. Growing up, I saw my mother as this bad-ass doctor who made her presence felt professionally as she beautifully managed her personal life. Even at school when my mother would come for PTA meetings, she had a different way about her, which was endearing and intimidating, and I remember desperately wanting to be her.
Maha: Medicine has always been my passion. I believe as early as six or seven years old, I used to be fascinated by the opportunity to really understand science. Physics, chemistry, and biology were the three subjects that I was attracted to. My parents were unable to afford my education, but I serendipitously came across an exchange program that was a scholarship for medical education in the Soviet Union, then the USSR. I did not know what I was getting myself into, but my passion of becoming a physician one day and helping patients drove me. My parents were behind me, they supported me completely.
Female attrition in STEM fields is often termed a “leaky pipeline,” where women leave the field because of workplace cultures, structures, and practices. Did you experience those issues? How did you overcome them?
Sugata: I was lucky enough to be born in a family where there was no discrimination between men and women. Whatever education my brothers got, even I was exposed to it. And I was encouraged to study science, but it really depended on the family. It’s not always in your hands. Particularly in rural India, it depends upon the economic and socioeconomic of the family.
Surita: Sad, but true. It’s still a man’s world, and sexism at the workplace is very prevalent. However, I am surrounded by excellent female co-residents, and my mother who epitomizes the bond of womanhood. Had it not been for my female co-residents who have supported me, encouraged me, and helped me out, it would have been very difficult. Thankfully, I am lucky to have a dad and a brother who believe in me and not what society asks from women, and a few good men among my residents who understand the struggle of being women, and encourage/ support us.
Maha: I can tell you honestly, I have not experienced it, but I’ve seen other people go through it. My guidance to them is “lean in and speak up.” Be confident, be bold, practice radical candor, and show people that you can also be vulnerable. I tell people don’t use gender to discriminate against yourself. Show people your merit. It’s as simple as leaning in and speaking up. Make this a mantra. It’s about confidence and not feeling inhibited just because you’re a woman.
While not all STEM fields and jobs are monolithic, how have you seen your profession change? Has the environment become more welcoming toward women during your time in the field?
Sugata: Engineering [in particular] is something that [wasn’t considered] a woman’s domain. Now, there are many female engineers cropping up, but it used to be an absolute no-no.
Surita: Definitely. Hospitals and the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education are more understanding and lenient about maternity leave and my current hospital is trying to find a place for lactating mothers where they can comfortably breastfeed. Policies have changed where we are actively coached to open up and complain about any sort of harassment faced at the workplace.
Maha: I think the women workforce has significantly expanded, there are a lot more opportunities opening up. But having said that, I don’t know if there are enough mentoring opportunities for women that are just coming out of undergrad and graduate programs. So, you know, I do think that it merits more discussion in terms of what else could we be doing to show [girls and women] what is possible in terms of career. When I graduated medical school, all I knew was I was going to either practice in an institution or open my own private practice. That’s the world I knew existed for a physician. I didn’t think about combining medicine, business, and corporate America. And I don’t know if women today have that opportunity. The question is, how do we open that up for them?
Why is it so crucial for women to be prominent in science?
Sugata: It’s crucial that women have a science background. They should study science, even if it is at a basic level, because maybe a woman might not like science, but otherwise she will not be exposed to modern technology.
Surita: As the old saying goes “If you need a job to be heard, tell a man. If you need that job to be done, tell a woman!” Jokes aside, I think it’s very important for young women, especially young South Asian women, to have strong women role models. From a very young age, South Asian women are taught about getting married and having kids. Like their life will cease to exist, if they are not married by 30 and have kids. Having a well-rounded life is important, which means having a career is equally important as having a family and especially in the current socioeconomic climate, it’s imperative, women have financial independence. I am 30+, happily single, and love the difference I make in my patient’s lives. Also, we need more empowered women in commanding positions to guide decisions that will directly affect women’s health and reproductive rights. No uterus, no opinion, as simple as that.
Maha: I think it’s the diversity of thinking. Women are passionate, women are committed, women are a force when it comes to change, right? Women are more resilient, they adapt to change better, and they come out as winners. It’s just because of all the different life situations we go through. Right. I feel that women have what it takes to be leaders, what it takes to be a pioneer, what it takes to be innovators and champions. That is something we need to empower women of Asian descent to really appreciate, recognize, and be bold about. The cultural upbringing in Asia is women need to be soft spoken, women need to be polite. All these taboos and stigmas need to go away.
What advice would you give to a young South Asian girl interested in pursuing a career in science?
Sugata: South Asian girls – or anyone in the world – should be encouraged to pursue a career in science if they’re interested. Science gives you a greater domain. Science is developing so fast, and it allows you to be more exposed to more techniques and modern gadgets. So I think it’s important for every girl to know and be exposed to science.
Surita: If you can take anything away from this little conversation, it would be to go ahead with your dreams of pursuing science. We need young minds and strong female role models who in turn will carry on the torch and influence other young minds, like the ripple effect. Not only science, but this also holds true for any field art/literature/sports. Read, be aware, have an opinion, and do not be afraid to use your voice. There’s nothing more beautiful or sexy than a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. The goal in life is to have a well-rounded life, which includes both personal and professional lives.
Maha: I would say follow your dreams, follow your brain, and follow your heart. Do not give up. Find the ways to open up the doors. We also need to showcase opportunities, and whose doors can they knock on, who can be their mentors, who can show them, what are some of the things that are possible. Reach for what is possible, and everything is possible as long as you have that dream.