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Think we’ve solved the STEM gender gap? Think again.

A Moma Therapeutics scientist in the startup's lab in Brighton.Moma Therapeutics

Sometimes, you discover things about yourself that are kind of underwhelming. Which is what happened when I took the quiz you’re about to take.

The quiz itself is simple. Just see how many of the following words you know:

  • peplum
  • boucle
  • chignon
  • tulle
  • espadrille
  • milliamp
  • neodymium
  • degauss
  • aileron
  • servo

I first stumbled across these words because of the work of Cambridge software engineer Yuri Vishnevsky, who, himself, stumbled across a paper in which scholars analyzed more than 60,000 English words. The question was: Which types of people knew which types of words?

Turns out, there are some enormous differences in the words that men and women know.

The first five words in the list — peplum, boucle, chignon, tulle, espadrille — are much more commonly known by women. More than 70 percent of women know the word tulle (a type of fabric), while less than 30 percent of men do.


The second five words in the list — milliamp, neodymium, degauss, aileron, servo — are much more commonly known by men. For example, servo — an engineering term describing something that regulates a mechanism — is known by more than 60 percent of men but by less than 30 percent of women.

My husband and I tested ourselves on the words, and we fell hideously well into our respective camps.

Now, I don’t really know why I’m so familiar with words relating to fabric and fashion. I’m not particularly fashionable. I don’t know that I’ve ever interacted with most of the fabrics on the list and, yet, apparently, my brain is sharing space with a Victorian dress shop.

But far more concerning than the fact that I know “peplum” (a flared piece of fabric, often on a woman’s shirt) is that I don’t know “aileron” (part of an aircraft’s wing that helps control it) or “neodymium” (a chemical element).


And it’s much more than a question of words; these words are reflective of a divide that starts early.

Indeed, though we’ve been talking about getting more women into STEM fields for at least a generation, there are signs that we’re doing a pretty mediocre job. And solutions are not going to be easy.

The percentage of female software engineers actually fell between 2010 and 2020 — just over 20 percent of software engineers are now women (down from about 30 percent in 2010).

There’s a lot of talk about getting girls to code, making them feel welcome in STEM, including high-achieving women on panels. But that may just be a lot of high-minded chatter, designed to make ourselves feel better.

In the world of investing, PitchBook — which researches capital flows to companies — found that only 2 percent of venture capital went to female-founded companies in 2021. (Women did better if they had a man as their cofounder.)

Two percent?!

One reason may be that almost all patents are awarded to men. Eighty-eight percent of patents have a man as their first (or only) author, while just 12 percent of patents have a woman as a first (or only) author. And having a breakthrough idea, with defensible intellectual property, is often the first step to building a breakthrough company.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Most biology degrees, for example, now go to women, and women earn about 20 percent of engineering degrees — a considerable increase from the 1980s, when it was closer to 10 percent.


But the fact that men are so dominant in software engineering (a job that’s very well compensated) and company-creation, raises questions about how much and how quickly culture is changing. It also underscores why women may have trouble bridging the wealth gap any time soon.

Deoksoon Kim, a professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, argues that the problem starts early. “I think the first issue is socialization in the home context. Parents say: ‘You’re a girl. You’re supposed to do this.’ And they give toys like Barbie dolls. ... If you’re a boy, they give you trucks or airplanes or cars. This kind of social norm is very difficult to correct.”

When she was young, Amanda Sullivan remembers a family member saying things like “your brother is better at math because he is a boy.” Sullivan went on to write the book “Breaking the STEM Stereotype: Reaching Girls in Early Childhood,” which grew out of her dissertation at Tufts.

“I have no doubt that if I had said I wanted to be an astronaut or mathematician when I grew up, they would have supported me,” she has written. “But with no explicit teachings, the role-modeling I received at home subtly taught me: math and science = male, while communication and interpersonal skills = female.”

As they enter school, boys and girls often inhabit overlapping, but distinct, bubbles. In one bubble, technical words are frequently used; in the other, they aren’t.


And kids’ belief in these separate bubbles solidifies quickly. For her dissertation, Sullivan spoke with kids in kindergarten through second grade, who would say: “‘I think boys would like this better,’ when they would look at a robotics kit or a certain app.” Kids came in with preconceived notions, she notes. They would say: “‘I think boys are better at building because of what I’ve seen my daddy do at home.’”

Jon Star, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who focuses on how kids learn math, says it may be “sort of a snowballing effect. That if girls don’t see role models of people in STEM careers that look like them or that share their values or life goals, that may discourage them from trying to consider those as possible career trajectories.”

So, how do you correct this problem before it snowballs?

Deoksoon Kim believes that you have to address it on multiple levels: Parents and guardians have to give different messages (and Sullivan says the messages can’t just be words, because kids pay attention to what you actually do). Girls have to be offered more opportunities to do STEM-related activities. And they have to understand how STEM applies to real life.

In her work with older kids, Kim has frequently seen boys and girls segregate themselves, and girls — who are otherwise stellar students — start “reducing their engagement ... they don’t expect that they’re going to do a good job.”


Sullivan noticed something similar with high school girls on competitive robotics teams, who “still had less confidence than their male counterparts.” These were girls who not only had extensive STEM experience, but also chose to be part of a robotics team. Still, by high school, girls felt like they had fallen behind. Team mentors, Sullivan remembers, would point out that boys had years of practice doing things like coding and playing with Legos, while girls didn’t.

And if high school girls who are voluntarily joining robotics teams feel intimidated, you can see why the talent pipeline is in trouble.

By 2030, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects huge growth in jobs like software developer, statistician, and information security analyst. But if the gender gap persists, trouble looms. Not just for companies and the economy, but for consumers, who suffer when diverse voices and ideas aren’t heard during product development.

Many of us — me included — had assumed that the US was generally moving toward more equality in STEM. But, in many areas, the numbers tell a different story.

The computer pioneer Grace Hopper once said: “Humans are allergic to change ... I try to fight that.” And it will take a lot of change — and fight — to reach girls young, to shift their ideas about what’s possible, and to help a bigger group of girls speak the language of science and engineering.

Follow Kara Miller @karaemiller.