Last year, USA Today ranked USC as the third best college for women studying STEM, citing that the number of women in tenured faculty positions in the sciences has tripled at the University since 2000. But, as with the age-old growth versus proficiency debate in education, the gender ratio among STEM faculty at the University remains controversial — three times a relatively small number, after all, shouldn’t be celebrated as an end-game victory for promoting diversity and gender representation.
According to the latest data provided by the University, two-thirds of faculty positions in STEM departments at USC are male. There are 296 female faculty members in the STEM fieldss compared to 598 male faculty members, and 15.1 percent of tenured STEM faculty are female while 84.9 percent are male.
These figures matter for a number of reasons, and speak not only to USC’s broader future as an elite institution of higher education, but ultimately to the futures of generations of young women to come.
Today, the gender wage gap persists despite the existence of modern laws meant to prevent it, largely because of cultural biases that can’t be legislated away. Much can be said of maternal leave policies that enforce gendered expectations and limit working women’s opportunities, as well as overt discrimination and sexist perceptions of who is more experienced and authoritative.
But in the 21st century, as STEM fields have become some of the highest paying lines of work and the predominantly male industries have become a hotbed for sexism and even sexual harassment. With roughly two-thirds of women in STEM reporting harassment or assault in the workplace, it’s becoming clear that notable gender gaps in this field are contributing significantly to pay inequality.
It would be ignorant to blame women for making the active choice to reject science. From a young age, girls are subliminally primed to follow other paths by ingrained cultural narratives, or are steered away from STEM simply because of the residue of sexism left from previous generations. For example, there are fewer female role models working in STEM jobs, with women comprising just 24 percent of the STEM workforce as of 2009, so it may be difficult for young women to picture themselves in this line of work. On the other hand, adolescent boys have no shortage of men working in STEM-related jobs to look up to and identify with.
Of course, none of this is to say that even if men and women equally comprised STEM jobs, wage inequality would vanish — 2016 research by Ohio State University has shown that even within STEM fields, the gender wage gap ranges from 11 to 30 percent.
All of this is, frankly, just the tip of a metaphorical iceberg that doesn’t even begin to address another equally troubling cultural phenomenon: the trivialization and economic devaluation of femininized lines of work. Historically, teaching and nursing were once regarded as highly prestigious fields, only to be dismissed upon becoming female-dominated.
But in either case, with a fresh school year comes a fresh start for USC, which is constantly marketing its diversity as a selling point to prospective students. That being said, the University certainly deserves recognition for its upward trajectory in terms of representing women more adequately in STEM faculty. Each woman who earns a tenured position in USC’s world-renowned science, technology, engineering or mathematics departments is another potential role model for young women, another potential speaker to inspire the female student body of a South L.A. elementary school, another potential mentor to a female USC student who could inspire her to challenge gendered barriers and go the extra mile in her studies.
Female hires matter, especially in male-dominated fields like computer science and engineering, and rising high school seniors weighing their options in the months to come might feel more comfortable and supported at a university where they feel represented by the faculty. Recognizing the extent to which representation can be a deciding factor for prospective students could be central to attracting valuable female talent to the University’s class of 2022, and to classes in the years to come.
Still, at the end of the day, credit must be given where it’s due: There’s no denying that USC’s female students in STEM are leading the way in the fight for fairer representation and female involvement in STEM leadership positions.
USC’s Association for Computing Machinery is currently led by a female president, and last year, AthenaHacks, a group created and led by female USC students, launched a hackathon that attracted more than 310 female high school, community college, undergraduate and graduate students across Los Angeles and yielded more than 60 submitted tech projects. According to the group, it was the largest all-female hackathon in Southern California, hosted right on USC’s campus.
Progress toward the representation of women in STEM at USC may be gradual, but don’t expect USC’s female student body to wait around. USC women are forging the path forward for female millennials, and in the years to come, the University and society at large will reap the benefits of this leadership.