Respect Equality

More women in STEM lead people to label them as ‘soft sciences’

Story at a glance

  • STEM fields are more likely to be given a “soft science” label if participation in those disciplines is led by women, new research shows.
  • STEM fields are likely to be viewed as soft sciences even if the “perceived participation” of women increases absent an increase in actual participation.
  • Disciplines labeled as soft sciences are often devalued and considered less rigorous and less worthy of federal funding, according to the study.

People are more likely to attach a “soft science” label to a field in science, technology, engineering and math, otherwise known as STEM, if participation in that field is led by women, according to new research.

A recent study by researchers at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and Indiana University found that when an individual is led to believe that female participation in certain STEM fields is greater than that of men, they are more likely to describe that discipline as a “soft science” rather than a “hard science.”

“Stereotypes about women and STEM persist, even in the face of evidence that women can and do productively participate in STEM fields,” Alysson Light, a professor at USciences and the study’s lead author, writes in The Conversation. “These stereotypes can lead people to simply devalue the fields in which women participate.”

That means jobs in math and science can also wind up being categorized as “pink collar” occupations, or jobs that are predominantly held by women. People in “pink collar” jobs, like teachers and nurses, are more likely to be underpaid for their work.


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The findings of Light and her colleagues run slightly counter to the findings of similar inquiries, and a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Virginia found that explicit “science-is-male” stereotypes were weaker among people in STEM fields with higher proportions of women, like biomedical sciences, suggesting gender biases are heavily influenced by an individual’s exposure to women in their field.

Still, an earlier study in 2007 found that when women account for more than 25 percent of graduate students in a certain discipline, men become markedly less interested in pursuing a career in that field of study. Another 2016 analysis found that, as female participation in traditionally male-dominated fields increases, work by women in that field becomes less valued.

“This suggests that the presence of women, and not characteristics of the job or field, is what leads to devaluation and lower pay,” Light writes.

According to the research of Light and her colleagues, an increase in the “perceived participation” of women in a STEM field increased the likelihood that that field would be viewed as a “soft science” — even by people who held similar jobs.

Even other women in STEM were more likely to label heavily female fields as “soft sciences.” That could reflect the tendency of women who experience sexism in the workplace to separate themselves from other women as a form of protection against harmful gender biases, according to Light.

The knock-on effects of that perception can be great, and disciplines labeled as soft sciences are often devalued and considered less rigorous and less worthy of federal funding, according to the study.

The “soft science” label may also dissuade people from choosing to pursue a career in that field, which could lead to less innovation or advancement in important areas of STEM.

“Science advocates must grapple with the fact that women’s work in scientific fields can result in fields being devalued,” Light writes. “For society to benefit fully from the broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, advocates may need to address gender stereotypes more directly.”


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