Women in STEM: Fighting Biases, Discrimination, and Sexism

We were very happy to welcome Patricia Valoy to campus as the keynote speaker for our second annual Gender Week. The theme of the week is Gender and STEM, so Valoy was a perfect choice. She’s an engineer and project manager, Latina, feminist writer, and STEM advocate.

Valoy generously shared her personal journey and experiences, along with data and statistics about representation in STEM fields. As an undergraduate engineering student at Columbia who is also a woman of color, she often felt that people thought she wasn’t smart enough, and was made to feel that she was not good enough.

She criticized the messages we send girls, with products that make statements like “I’m too pretty to do math.” Her father reinforced these messages, refusing to buy her a microscope when she asked because he saw that as a toy for boys. Valoy said that incident is still hurtful, even though it happened many years ago. In an effort to provide more empowering cultural images for women, Mattel developed Barbie the Computer Scientist. A widely criticized book accompanying the doll sends the message that Barbie can’t design things without help from men. Movies that portray nerds/geeks as white men strengthen the message that girls and women can’t also be geeks.

In reality, girls are excelling at math and science. Middle school is when the self-questioning starts, and we see this exacerbated at high school. At the college level, the rate of women earning computer science degrees, as just one example, has actually declined significantly. In a comparison of data from 2004 and 2014, the percentage of women in every STEM field declined.

Valoy calls this the “timeline of failure.” Others have referred to it as the “leaky pipeline.” It looks like this:

  • Girls are doing great in math and science
  • By college, they are less interested in STEM
  • There is a lack of mentorship and guidance at the early career stage
  • Half of female STEM professionals quit by mid-career

Valoy clarified that although people assume this exodus at mid-career is because women have children, the data do not support that assumption. In fact, the reasons women articulate include a hostile work environment, a lack of support and mentorship, and a lack of clarity or transparency about potential career advancement like raises or promotions.

In response to a question from the audience about whether the problem is women or the system, Valoy was emphatic that the system is creating these outcomes. If companies don’t see value in or aren’t intentional about supporting women, especially women of color, they won’t put resources behind those efforts.

Valoy is the only woman and only person of color in her department at the engineering firm for which she works. She told of encountering another Latina woman from a different division who said to her “you don’t look like an engineer.” In a moment in which she would have expected to find support from another women who was likely to share her experiences of isolation and discrimination, she instead encountered another demoralizing message.

There is a set of intersecting issues that impact the experiences of women, and especially women of color, in STEM careers:

  • Isolation – you are the only person or one of the only people who looks like you
  • Prove-it again attitudes
  • Cultural barriers – e.g., if you speak with an accent, your credibility is questioned
  • Parental wall – not given challenging assignments or the opportunity for promotion because you’re a mother and it is assumed you’re not interested (this does not happen to fathers)
  • Gendered pay gap – currently women make, on average, 80 centers for every dollar that men make
  • Lack of support
  • Racism and sexism (I would also add homophobia)
  • Sexual harassment

Valoy did provide some cause for optimism when she shared possible strategies to change things.


Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center
March 7, 2018