Female Equality in STEM Fields

Themes of lauded film Hidden Figures linger as conversations about gender bias continue, especially in STEM fields.

This article by Makenzie Stallo originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of TCU Magazine.

Sitting in the middle of a Midwest college classroom with books on the desk and pencils sharpened, Diane Snow was unprepared for what happened next on the first day of her introductory chemistry course.

The male professor walked into the room and surveyed students. “There are a couple of women in here,” Snow recalled the man saying. “I should probably just tell you from day one to save you hardship that you might be better off quitting this class and going to find some interest in library science or something where women tend to do better.”

Today, Snow, dean of the John V. Roach Honors College, holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Photo of Dean Diane Snow

Diane Snow, dean of the John V. Roach Honors College

But on that first day of class in 1976, Snow, an undergraduate in life science and biology at the University of Akron in Ohio, was stunned by the professor’s overt bias. “I looked around the room like, ‘Did you just hear that? Did that actually just get said?’”

Snow stood up in the chemistry class and started packing up her things.

“Being the feisty young woman I was, I smashed my book closed really loud and piled all my books up. And in my high heels, I walked down the steps right to the middle, stood in front of the podium, looked at him [the professor] and walked out of the room and slammed the door.”

She had a slight moment of regret, worrying that the professor might have thought she was taking his advice to leave. But ultimately, Snow was proud of herself and later signed up for another chemistry course with a different professor.

Not all women experience such blatant discrimination in the math and science fields. But the problem has a long history, as illustrated in the recent Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which focused on the true-life stories of three African-American women in the early 1960s.

Besides illuminating the racial inequalities of that civil rights era, Hidden Figures also highlights the gender discrimination that the trio of women endured while working in math, engineering and computer science for NASA during the first U.S. space missions. Even though the blockbuster film is set more than 50 years ago, gender bias persists today in the fields of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Molly Weinburgh, director of the Andrews Institute of Mathematics & Science Education at TCU, said the gender inequities presented in Hidden Figures were accurate depictions.

“It never occurred to them that people of color or women could have really good brains,” said Weinburgh, who holds the William L. & Betty F. Adams Chair in Education. “It’s a lesson to all of us to look carefully at the prejudices we’re carrying with us that we may not even know we’re carrying.”

Read more in TCU Magazine.