WEST Wisdom Blog

Preposterous Stigmas Resulting in Mental Health Epidemic for Women in STEM

Posted by Courtney Cyron on May 18, 2023 1:27:25 PM

Mental health struggles can happen to anyone. Being in a negative situation for too long isMental Health Quote #2-1 bound to have its effects, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to undo that damage. In many cases, mental health struggles are a result of one specific situation, or a toxic boss or co-worker, something easy to pinpoint. In STEM, that can be true, but even more so, women have seen a higher rate of mental health struggles because of more industry-wide issues. There’s still a stigma, in some places, that women don’t belong in STEM professions or that women are not going to be as smart or as well-educated as men. 

Being in a situation that is draining to your mental health can result in bouts of depression and anxiety. Regarding anxiety, about 264 million people, equivalent to 3.6% of the world population, present with depression and anxiety in a pathological way, and again it is more prevalent in women, whose incidence is 4.6%, while in men this rate is 2.6% (WHO, 2017). 

It’s hard to talk about mental health struggles in STEM industries without recognizing that there are some demographics that are obviously the minority. While progress to increase women’s prevalence in STEM industries has been made, women overall hold dramatically fewer STEM roles than men do. Within that are certain ethnicities being even more of a minority among STEM employees, men or women. According to the American Community Survey (ACS, 2015), women constituted only 25% of all STEM workers with university degrees (Noonan, 2017). 

In many scenarios, it has been seen that being a constant minority can affect the mentality of members of said minority groups. When group members feel as though they cannot fully relate to the other members, or feel as though they ‘stand out’ because they are the minority there can be confidence, belonging, and imposter syndrome issues. Based on the current statistics, women are almost always going to be the minority in STEM companies. This is one reason that women find themselves struggling with mental health at higher rates than men.

In Higher Education

It starts early in the STEM fields. 43-46% of graduate students polled in Biosciences studies experienced depression. Not like graduate school isn’t hard enough, many women, especially Women of Color (WoC) find themselves feeling the extra burden of the need to succeed for all those of their same race to have a future in STEM industries, and regardless of racial background the pressure to succeed in order to prove women have a place in STEM roles. In studies of graduate students’ experiences in STEM studies, there is a much higher rate of choosing not to complete the program due to mental stressors such as gendered and racialized encounters with other students and professors. 

Being an unwelcome minority can really take its toll on a person. “Women in STEM fields are more likely to suffer from depression than men. In this study, 7.2% of women in life-physical-social sciences reported at least one bout of depression in the year the study was performed versus 2.3% of men. 11.1% of women reported depression in engineering-architecture-surveying versus 3.3% of men. In mathematics and computer science, 10.4% of women reported versus 4.6% of men." (Ricard, WWEST)

While there are a large number of Women and Girls in Science programs aimed at middle school and high school students to encourage them to take an interest in STEM professions later in life, the stigma that women are less likely to succeed and be valuable in STEM industries persists in some places. As the study above shows, these programs have yet to entirely change the mentality of women in STEM higher education programs. 

While some women choose not to complete their studies because of this negative mentality towards their presence in STEM programs and professions, there is still a number of women who choose to complete their programs. Rates of women in STEM vary by field, with women earning about 40-50 percent of degrees in agricultural and physical sciences but only 18-19 percent of degrees in computer science and engineering (National Science Foundation, 2013). Numbers decline as individuals move up the educational and career ladder, with women earning 41 percent of PhDs in STEM fields overall and making up 28 percent of tenure-track faculty members in STEM (Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2011)

The confrontations with the stigmas surrounding women in STEM may begin in a woman’s educational program, but for those that elect to begin their professional career in STEM academia, the stigmas continue. Women in higher education STEM roles find themselves in tough situations as well. The stigma that a woman would not make as high quality a professor or mentor for an engineering class as a man would is preposterous, but unfortunately common at some institutions. The same femininity that is seen as a negative trait in a research lab can hinder a woman’s success in the academic fields as well. A woman beginning to care and truly invest in a student who is driven and passionate about their STEM interests can be seen as biased towards that student in a ‘mothering’ way, instead of simply mentoring the student because the student is interested and the woman sees potential. 

Among faculty in STEM, women also reported more gender discrimination than men; in fact, 96 percent of men reported experiencing no gender discrimination compared to 59 percent of women (Settles, Cortina, Buchanan, & Miner, 2013). This gender discrimination, among other confrontations, creates the need for women to find ways to manage their situations or cope with the mental/emotional burdens of these negative interactions. 

Women in STEM engage in strategic impression management designed to control others’ negative impressions related to their gender; they bear the unnecessary load of changing others’ perceptions of women in STEM. One of the effects of having to defend their femininity is finding themselves, sometimes inadvertently, placing more emphasis on their gender identity than their scientist identity. Results indicated that woman-scientist identity interference was more likely to occur when female STEM undergraduates placed importance on their gender identity, but not their scientist identity (Settles, 2004). 

In Industry

Women find themselves in positions that they are uncomfortable in, feel unsuccessful in, and feel burdened by at a much higher rate in STEM professions than men. Because of these draining feelings, as well as women reporting a higher instance of lack of interpersonal support, women are much more likely to leave their jobs in STEM industries.

Mental Health Quote #4Metlife’s study findings show that 22 percent of women working in STEM are considering leaving their workforce right now compared to just 12 percent of women working in other fields. A total of 32 percent of women in STEM surveyed said stress and or burnout was the top reason they wanted to leave their job immediately. Without interpersonal support from co-workers and leadership, women are more likely to find themselves unable to continue to cope with the constant barrage of negativity regarding their skills, abilities, and growth potential. Another 29 percent said “seeing others getting promoted ahead of them” was the reason they wanted to leave their post and 25 percent said a lack of purposeful or meaningful work was the primary reason they hoped to leave soon. Another 20 percent cited a lack of diversity at their company as the main reason they wanted to leave.  

From these numbers, we can conclude that women are more likely to feel like keeping up with the constant negativity surrounding their fit for their positions, performing well in their roles, and keeping a realistic work-life balance is not worth the toll it takes on their health. In addition, and because of trying to keep up with these factors, women are more likely to feel dramatically undervalued in their roles. The study found that 70 percent of women in STEM believed their employer valued their male colleagues more than them, compared to 38 percent of women working in other fields who said the same. Over 20 percent of women in STEM were forced to take a pay cut at some point during the pandemic, compared to 15 percent of people in the total U.S. workforce.  

For women who worked so hard to earn the education required to qualify for positions in STEM industries to find themselves being undervalued at such a high rate, it only makes sense that at some point they would question whether to remain in these positions. Many of these women pursued education and industry positions because of a true passion for their selected STEM roles, only to have poor leadership and preposterous stigmas crush that passion, at least once along the way. 

What we can do

Creating an environment that squanders the preposterous stigmas that create these mental struggles for women is step one. We need to create an environment in STEM education, academic roles, and industry roles that are just as accepting and encouraging of women as it is of men. On an individual level, this can be achieved by making it unacceptable to perpetuate any of these negative stigmas yourself and for anyone you are connected with. 

On a more broad-level approach, engaging in DEI trainings for professors, university leadership, and employees of all levels at private companies to teach the biases that may be unknowingly affecting women in STEM positions can be an effective step. Additionally, creating open and equal networking opportunities for women in STEM to participate in professional discussions of all interests and all levels is a great way to provide the interpersonal support that women are currently lacking. When asked, several WEST community members supported the idea that to “build trust, encourage communication, and bring awareness to mental health issues” would be an excellent place to start. Even stronger, deeper interpersonal support systems can be created by encouraging women in STEM to find a mentor or mentorship program that can help them grow in their professions and support them each step of the way. 

For women that are struggling with their mental health in STEM industries, accepting opportunities for self-care and communicating these shortfalls in your environment can go a long way to improving day-to-day interactions. Allowing employees to use their sick leave as mental health or self-care days without judgment can give women the opportunity to rest, recharge, and re-energize themselves when they return to work. These things encourage the most supportive work-life balance possible for each position. 


While the mental health epidemic is affecting people of all races, genders, and backgrounds, men and women, and all types of education and professional levels, there is a much higher prevalence of mental health issues for women in STEM industries. By taking the time to practice self-care many of the women experiencing these mental health issues can see some improvement. More importantly, by taking the time to educate and enlighten leadership within STEM companies and institutions about the issues that are leading to mental health issues for women in STEM industries, we can begin to make progress in ending the causes of mental health issues. With these efforts we can take steps towards STEM professions, from the very beginning of higher education all the way through the top leadership positions in STEM companies, being a more equal, accepting, and supportive environment.
















Topics: Gender Balance, STEM, STEM, Gender Balance, Communication, Community, Choice, Resilience, Mentoring, Coaching, Culture, Networking, Discussion, Mindfulness, Change, Collaboration, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Empathy, Gender Pay Gap, Confidence, Challenges, Career Development, Empowerment, Mentor, Inclusion, Diversity, Organizational Culture, Corporate Culture, D&I, Gender Parity, Equity, STEM Women, STEM Leadership, Female Representation STEM, Hiring Women in STEM, Strong Women

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