Women in STEM: Why We Need More Female Leaders in Technical Fields

Woman in Laboratory
March 21, 2019
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According to Pew Research Center data, employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also known as STEM) occupations has grown by a staggering 79% since 1990. But while women have made tremendous strides in some areas of STEM, they are still extremely underrepresented in many sectors. This noticeable and pervasive gap tends to discourage other women from entering STEM fields (or even being interested in STEM subjects in school). If we want to make a positive change and see more women in STEM leadership positions, we need to tackle the problem from the very beginning and start emphasizing the importance of STEM from early on.

The Statistics on Girls and Women in STEM

Traditionally, female students were seen as somehow having a lower aptitude for STEM subjects than their male peers. This misguided notion continues to impact girls in the classroom — and because those years play such an important role in overall development, many young ladies have their interest in STEM squashed before they ever have a chance to pursue it professionally. Girls and women often cite disapproval from adults (like parents or teachers) as their top reason for not exploring STEM subjects and careers.

The idea that girls are simply inferior to boys in these subjects really has no merit. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, female student achievement in math and science is generally on par with that of male students, and their participation in such subjects is comparable in K-12 education. Even when male students outpace their female counterparts on exams, this can often be chalked up to the anxiety or lack of self-confidence experienced by girls when taking tests. In fact, a 2017 study found that 15-year-old girls were more anxious than boys of the same age about mathematics in 80% of countries surveyed. The age cited here is significant, as experts say that encouraging an interest in math and science among girls ages 11 to 15 plays an essential role. One study found that the STEM fields interest gap between boys and girls increases from 6.1% to 9.4% during those years.

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Still, there has been some growth in terms of the interest women may have in STEM subjects. Some studies have found that women make up the majority of STEM grad students and end up earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees. However, it’s important to note that these studies often include statistics from health and medical science programs, which are often dominated by women. In specialties like computer science, engineering, and math, women receive far fewer degrees than their male counterparts. And even when women do earn their degrees, they often pursue careers unrelated to those STEM degrees. What’s more, if they do go into a STEM career, they’re also more likely to leave it behind. Prior research has found that 52% of qualified women working in STEM fields leave their jobs. Interestingly, the United States is one of the more advanced countries in the world in terms of gender equality — but we have a much bigger gender gap in these fields compared to countries that don’t enjoy the same freedoms we do.

Improvements have been made here — but there’s still a long way to go. A recent report conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that, even though female students outnumber male students overall in graduate schools in the developed world, women account for only 25% of graduates in information and communications technology and 24% of engineering program graduates. Another report from 2017 found that female enrollment in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics, information and communications technology, and manufacturing and construction each represent anywhere from 3% to 8% of enrollment. The biggest gender disparities often involve women of color: only 11.2% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to minority women in 2012. What’s more, 70% of people working in science and engineering occupations were white in 2013, and minority women comprised fewer than one in 10 employed scientists and engineers in 2015.

How to Encourage More Women to Pursue STEM Careers

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To address this disparity, current leaders in STEM must make a concerted effort to encourage female involvement in these fields from an early age. Experts say that while some STEM subjects are covered in the normal school curriculum, many of these subjects are introduced too late to spark an interest in female students. Getting young women interested in STEM topics and careers at a much earlier age can go a long way. In order to nurture these girls, schools may consider partnering with local organizations and employers who can share the exciting, real life applications of STEM and connect with students on a different level. Conferences, open houses, presentations, and other events can introduce students to a world they never would have known about and act as the catalyst for a lifelong interest in STEM.

Mentoring and training programs are essential, as well. When young women are given the opportunity to work with STEM leaders and receive personalized attention to develop their skills and interests, they’ll become more confident about their abilities and more passionate about these subjects. Being exposed to the real world applications of STEM in a safe, non-judgmental environment can show them that it’s okay to struggle. In these situations, they can learn to think critically and solve problems in new ways — which is really what STEM is all about. Employers need to think of mentorship programs as a way to further their own success, as well as that of female students in the community.

What’s more, women in STEM careers must promote the careers of other women pursuing these career paths. One report found that a majority of successful women in STEM have sponsored someone at their place of employment, meaning they’re more likely to advocate for the promotion of their proteges and help them to improve their performance. Sponsoring young talent in STEM fields also allows the sponsor to build up their own reputations and improve upon their own skills, as well.

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By addressing these points, we can make a real difference concerning female interest in STEM subjects. But ultimately, cultivating the leadership of women in STEM requires addressing the gender gap. Not only are women underrepresented in STEM as a whole, but they’re more inclined to undersell themselves and to experience less support in the workplace. Since women are less likely to seek out leadership positions in general (not just in STEM careers), employers need to recognize and reward leadership skills in their female employees and make a real effort to tackle gender disparity in the workplace. In order for us to continue making strides in these essential sectors, we must prioritize the involvement and employment of women and encourage these women to lead.

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