Shonté Jovan Taylor, MSc., Ph.D.(c), delves into the cognitive effects of women participating in STEAM fields.
By Shonté Jovan Taylor, Msc., Ph.D.(c)
While studying neuroscience at UCLA, I noticed a significant gender disparity among the students, which was even more apparent as a woman of color. My observations were validated when, years later, a female neuroscience professional advised me to pursue medicine due to the stress and discouragement women often faced in science. Absorbing her words, I made the conscious decision to embark on graduate studies in neuroscience. Her advice has remained with me, unconsciously and consciously guiding me through the challenges of my own STEAM journey.
Seeing is Believing
It is crucial to emphasize the significance of women seeing themselves in STEAM fields. Research demonstrates that when we envision our future selves, we are empowered to make more profound and lasting choices. Witnessing women in these roles, either through mentorship or representation, activates our mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are specialized brain cells that unconsciously respond to observing others and enable us to empathize and genuinely experience their actions.
Furthermore, encouraging girls to imagine themselves in STEAM roles (such as playing with a NASA Barbie) can empower them with confidence, self-esteem, resilience and determination to navigate the emotional and physical challenges of pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated industries
Taking on Imposter Syndrome & Isolation
Consider the experience of Eileen Pollack, one of the first women to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics at Yale University. She abandoned her dream of becoming a theoretical physicist after facing the challenges of discrimination, rejection, isolation and depression. Neuroscience reveals that isolation, loneliness and rejection are processed as both emotional and physical pain responses in the brain. It’s a protective mechanism to avoid situations or individuals causing harm. Consequently, this continuous activation of “unconscious pain” is one reason why women run from pursuing certain fields or industries. Moreover, this neurological response hampers the ability to overcome negative emotions and impairs focus, attention and executive functioning necessary for high-level cognitive tasks like research, calculations, reading and retaining scientific materials.
Evolving Our Belief Systems
Most of my work as a math teacher isn’t even math. It’s helping them to believe that they can do math.José Vilson
Promoting a shift in beliefs is crucial not only for young girls and women, but also for boys and men. It is essential that we foster the belief that girls and women can make significant contributions and excel in STEAM fields. Research reveals a concerning trend, with studies showing that female applicants are often judged more critically by STEAM faculty compared to their male counterparts, despite having similar credentials and experience. However, research organizations like CATALYST have discovered that companies benefit greatly from having a higher representation of women in their teams. This diversity fosters enhanced creativity, leading to better financial performance and cost efficiency, as demonstrated by their higher percentage on boards.
“A” is for ART!
STEAM, the evolution of STEM, introduces art as a vital component that broadens and diversifies entry points into these fields. By positioning art alongside other STEM disciplines, we foster an environment where women can blend creative, technical and methodical talents. This integration empowers a new generation to embrace a path that unites artistry with innovation.
The Thinkery museum in Austin masterfully combines art, science and role-play to provide children with a captivating experience that reveals the interconnectedness of these fields. Art intertwines with science—it embodies math, physics and biology. Engaging various brain regions associated with these processes, art sparks heightened levels of creativity, cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills.
In male-dominated industries, subconscious worries about their reduced status due to increasing representation and elevation of women stem from default thinking patterns. This pattern is driven by an instinctive position that activates the primitive threat brain, aiming to maintain status because it is perceived to yield the greatest benefits, such as mates, food and more
Furthermore, the female brain possesses designated regions that foster unique perspectives and add value, often eluding our male counterparts. Our brains are naturally wired to be intuitive and future-oriented, enabling us to identify trends and find novel solutions. This is attributed to a thicker prefrontal cortex and enhanced interhemispheric communication through thicker nerve fibers, allowing effective collaboration between both sides of our brains.
Research in behavioral science suggests that promoting and educating women in STEAM fields with a positive focus on outcomes, such as higher incomes, reduced pay gaps and improved cognitive flexibility and creativity, can greatly enhance their confidence and inner motivation. To effectively recruit and retain more women in STEAM, it requires an emphasis on positive outcomes and the collective effort of influential individuals such as policymakers, media, universities and career advisors. Evolving STEAM industries to reach their fullest potential demands diverse perspectives and collaborative forces.