STEM Fields With More Women Are Often Dismissed as ‘Soft Science,’ Shows Study


Jan 25, 2022


Image Credit: StemcellTechnologies

What makes something like computer science “hard science,” and sociology or biomedical sciences “soft”? The number of women participating in a said field tends to tip the balance, according to new research. In other words, pervasive gender stereotypes impact people’s perception of a said field.

Sexism in STEM is a beast of its own kind, one whose existence is widely acknowledged but also accepted. What’s compelling here is the rigidity of gender stereotypes — to the extent that a STEM field is perceived as less hardcore if women are in it. Gender is the ultimate litmus test to gauge the perceived importance of a science.

Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology this month, the study conducted a series of experiments to gauge how people perceive women’s participation across science, technology, engineering, and maths. Participants were then asked to label a certain field “hard science” or “soft science”; they were more likely to color a field “soft” if they thought more women worked in it. So, areas like chemistry, sociology, and biomedical sciences were categorized as “soft”; computer science, where the gender disbalance is apparent and continues to be male-dominated, was labeled “hard science.”

“Stereotypes about women and STEM persist, even in the face of evidence that women can and do productively participate in STEM fields,” wrote Alysson Light, a professor of behavioral and social sciences, and co-author of the study.

The problem with the “soft science” label is simple: it can “lead people to simply devalue the fields in which women participate.”

Related on The Swaddle:

Gender Stereotypes Can Drop Girls’ Interest in STEM by 50%, Suggests Research

The relegation to “soft” and “passive” has a tangible impact: It shapes the perception of the area of research as one requiring less rigor and is deemed less trustworthy in its credibility. Sample this: men (and also some women) tend to be less interested in pursuing a discipline if women make up more than a quarter of the graduate students in that discipline, according to a 2007 study.

Aashima Freidog, co-founder of Life of Science, once told The Swaddle: “We should look back to how humanity has seen science itself — it’s always seen as something to find, discover and invent. This is not something most cultures think women are meant to do.”

This converges into the idea that the STEM field deserves less funding and researchers may end up being under-compensated. This has been observed before: STEM fields with increasing women’s participation began to witness a drop in salary, perhaps, owing to what they “deserve.” “The label of ‘soft science’ might be a turnoff for high-achieving students who want to prove their strengths – or, conversely, students who are insecure about their abilities might avoid a major described as a ‘hard science,'” the researchers explained.

“In this way, even science and math can end up in the ‘pink collar’ category of heavily female fields that are often devalued and underpaid,” Light added. Absurdly enough, it is the mere presence of women — irrespective of what skills they have or what the field demands — can devalue a whole scientific domain.

This is not unsurprising: STEM remains a highly gatekept institution, where women’s representation has unevenly changed over the past many decades.

“Although stereotypes about gender and STEM (e.g., more naturally the domain of boys and men) are now usually explicitly disavowed as a rationale for choosing courses to take, majors to enter, or persons to hire,” researchers of a 2015 study noted, “evidence suggests that they nevertheless affect perceptions, performance, and decisions, primarily without intention or awareness.”

Interestingly, the above research found within these purported “soft” sciences, the gender stereotypes tended to be weaker. In other words, a field like biological sciences, which has a high participation of women in some countries, had more parity in terms of wages and access to resources. Conversely, fields with few women, like computer science or engineering, tended to reassert sexist ideas explicitly; this could be through salary or peddling the belief that men are just better at some things. The study concluded that women’s representation and exposure to these role models in one’s field can impactfully question gender stereotypes.

The effort, then, has been to bridge the sexism gap in the male-dominated fields; done through increasing participation, representation, driving together wage parity. This not only helps increase the relative earning power but also does much to address the gender stereotypes.

But the current findings are then stark in their outlook. If increasing participation still doesn’t challenge people’s sensibilities, and makes them cast these fields as “weak” and “undeserving,” the gender bias feels like a rot too deep. The answer is not to stop working towards more representation, but to look the beast right in the eye and address the bias within.


Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.


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