While serious obstacles remain and gender disparity stubbornly persists, the outlook for women choosing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is brighter than ever. Two trends are converging at the right time: Societal misconceptions about women in technology fields are being blown up just as industry’s need for skilled tech professionals skyrockets.
The current state of women in STEM is a case of good news/better news.
The good news is the growing awareness of the challenges women and girls face in these important fields. Universities, professional associations, and tech industries are redoubling their efforts to encourage women and girls to study science and technology subjects and to pursue careers in STEM.
The bias against women and girls is quickly evaporating as awareness grows of the long history of contributions of women in science. In turn, there is a great deal of work being done by female leaders in diverse technical fields. Moreover, efforts continue to counter societal gender biases and to prevent them from arising in the first place.
Harvard University’s Sarah Rugheimer documents the many studies confirming gender bias in STEM on her blog, Women in STEM Resources. Among the findings Rugheimer reports are the following:
- Students of both sexes rate male professors higher than female professors.
- Teachers of both sexes favor male students over female students.
- Female lecturers are rated lower than their male counterparts by both men and women, although the disparity is greater in evaluations done by men.
- Men underestimate the academic performance of their female peers.
- Mothers are less likely to be recommended for hire, promotion, and management than fathers, and mothers receive lower starting salaries than fathers, who are perceived as being more committed to their work.
The first step in overcoming such ingrained biases is being aware of their impact, which is increasingly common as more opportunities are opening up for diverse leaders in science and technology. By understanding the root causes of gender bias in schools, employment, and society, effective approaches can be formulated to continue to combat and overcome cultural fallacies.
Growing Need for Tech Talent Means More STEM Opportunities for Women
The better news about women in STEM is twofold. First, women and girls are steadily gaining equal access to high-quality education and employment opportunities. That doesn’t mean that challenges don’t remain in some cases, of course. A study conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) titled “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing” found that, in the recent past, the number of women in STEM actually declined:
- In 2013, only 26% of computer professionals were women, which is far fewer than 30 years earlier and reflects about the same level of representation as in 1960. Women comprised only 12% of working engineers in 2013.
- The decline is all the more dire because computing and engineering offer the greatest potential for career opportunities in STEM, accounting for more than 80% of all STEM employment.
To counter the drop in women pursuing STEM careers, more effort is already being made to spark an interest in girls between the ages of 11 and 15, according to Microsoft executive Shelley McKinley, as cited by Celestine Bohlen in The New York Times. McKinley points to a study that found the gap in STEM interest between boys and girls increases from 6.1% to 9.4% between those ages. Parents and teachers are coming to understand the importance of inspiring and encouraging girls’ interest in STEM fields at an early age.
Jobs in STEM fields are high-paying, and while women in STEM make less money than their male counterparts at present, a concerted effort is underway to remove all gender discrepancies in tech salaries. The AAUW report notes that the gender pay gap is narrower for fields such as mechanical engineering and software development (90 cents for every dollar earned by a man) than for all occupations (76 cents for every dollar earned by a man). The disparity in STEM salaries by gender is higher for professionals late in their careers than it is for women in the early and middle stages of their work lives, which bodes well for eliminating the disparity altogether in coming years.
The need for highly-trained STEM professionals is growing rapidly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2016 and 2026, employment of computer and information research scientists will increase by 19%, which is much higher than the 7% average for all occupations in the period. The BLS projects that there will be 140,000 new engineering jobs created between 2016 and 2026.
Enhanced Support in Schools and Workplaces for Women and Girls in STEM
The foundation is now in place to boost the careers and leadership opportunities of talented female scientists, engineers, physicists, and leaders in every technology field. For example:
- Training and workshops that attempt to counter the gender bias in STEM are becoming more prevalent.
- Awareness of the contributions of women in STEM history is increasing.
- Mentorships and employee resource groups help to counter the isolation many women experience in their first years in STEM careers.
To address the built-in bias against women in STEM, NCWIT’s Ashcraft recommends making computer science classes more interesting to girls, informing girls of the contributions of women in STEM history, and involving women in the design and implementation of collaborative and active learning environments.
Ashcraft’s research found that for girls’ perceptions of technology to change, the way STEM is portrayed by their direct and indirect influencers must change. These influencers include:
- Parents and families
- Teachers, counselors, and school administrators
- School curriculum decision-makers
- Researchers and industry leaders
- Legislators and policymakers
To counter this pervasive bias, more effort is being made to teach students in elementary and high schools about the contributions of women to STEM fields. The Smithsonian Science Education Center has created the Girls and Women in STEM resource to support the effort to increase awareness of the accomplishments of such women as Katherine Johnson, whose long career at NASA extended from the Mercury and Apollo programs to the space shuttle and International Space Station.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy’s STEM Mentoring Program, which brings together undergraduate students and Energy Department professionals, has joined with the White House Council on Women and Girls and other agencies to encourage young women to choose careers in STEM fields. NASA’s STEM Engagement program highlights the stories of women at the agency, including the women on the team that sent the InSight probe to Mars.
Bright Career Outlook for Women in STEM
Bustle‘s JR Thorpe describes 2018 as a “groundbreaking year” for women in STEM. As evidence, Thorpe points to Business Insider‘s 2018 list of the most powerful female engineers in the world, which includes head engineers at Apple, Adobe, Google, Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX.
The Society of Women Engineers notes that the U.S. faces a “significant shortage of skilled labor.” This shortfall can only be addressed by “increasing the persistence of women in engineering at all stages of their careers,” according to the society.
The BLS forecasts above-average growth for the following STEM job categories between 2016 and 2026 (compared to a growth rate for all occupations forecast at 7%):
- Mathematicians and statisticians: 33%
- Computer and information research scientists: 19%
- Medical scientists: 13%
- Atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists: 12%
- Environmental scientists and specialists: 11%
- Biochemists and biophysicists: 11%
Companies are coming to realize that when women aren’t a central part of the decision-making process, businesses miss valuable marketing opportunities. The New York Times‘ Bohlen points out that women create only 9% of software applications, and only 6% of programs are created by all-female teams. When development teams are all male or predominantly male, the resulting algorithms reflect male “attitudes and biases,” according to Bohlen. The result is a failure to address the needs of half the potential market for a company’s products and services.
A 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identifies a widening gender divide in access to technology as a primary impediment to the advancement of women in STEM. Still, digital technologies represent a path for women to “leapfrog opportunities” that promise to close the gender gap rapidly. The report found that girls and young women are more likely to take an interest in STEM subjects when their awareness of the field’s professional opportunities is raised and when their access to educational resources improves.
The percentage of women active in patents rose faster than the average rate of increase for all patent applicants from 2004 to 2015, according to the OECD, and there was an even higher percentage increase for IT-related patents. However, the growth rate does little to close the overall gap with patent activity by men: At the current rate of increase, women wouldn’t reach parity with men in patent awards until 2080.
National Geographic‘s Marguerite Del Giudice quotes Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger as saying that the more often women are included in research studies, the more relevant and interesting the results of the research are to women. As STEM careers and research opportunities open up to women, “the general knowledge in that field tends to expand,” according to Schiebinger.
There is an increased reliance on collaboration as teams located around the world share access to and analysis of the mountains of data that is now available to researchers and analysts. According to researchers, the creativity and leadership of women will be required to ensure scientific inquiry is approached from many different perspectives, including those of women, children, caregivers, the elderly, and other groups.
Tips for Taking a STEM Career to the Highest Levels
Research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) studied common traits in successful women in STEM. Laura Sherbin, co-president of CTI, writes in the Harvard Business Review that 52% of “highly qualified” women in STEM leave their positions, due primarily to “cultures” the women find challenging. The center’s research was an attempt to identify the strategies women use to overcome workplace obstacles in STEM fields.
The researchers defined success as job satisfaction, respect of co-workers for their technical skills, and achieving a senior position. Six approaches were identified as contributing to the success of women in STEM:
- Exude confidence.
- Claim credit when deserved.
- Cultivate peer networks.
- Serve as a mentor for other women in STEM.
- Be your true self.
- Take pride in your successes, particularly in how they solve real-world problems.
The AAUW’s “Solving the Equation” report cites the importance of “professional role confidence” to success in engineering and other STEM occupations. STEM students must be introduced to the “culture and norms” of the profession to boost their confidence in their own expertise. The goal of STEM education is threefold, according to researchers:
- Develop useful skills.
- Advance to the next level of the field.
- Believe in your ability to have a successful career.
When a sense of confidence is instilled in female STEM students, they are more likely to finish their education and enter the STEM workforce. Researchers cite this persistence as a key factor in leading more women to successful STEM careers.
A major factor in retaining women in STEM positions is making the jobs feel like a “good fit” for women. Ensuring that women find work environments in which they can thrive is aided by mentoring programs that introduce female students to the people and places they will encounter in their work.
STEM occupations require a range of skills beyond mathematics and science, according to the AAUW report. More women and girls can be drawn to the field when mentors emphasize the importance of skills related to design, writing, communication, and management. Researchers have found that women are less likely to turn away from STEM fields when they are instructed in the societal impact of the work.
Women are more likely to reach the pinnacles of STEM professions when they are confident in their abilities, comfortable in their work environments, and supported via networks of colleagues and mentors. Strides are being made in all three areas, particularly through degree programs such as Maryville University’s Bachelor of Science in Mathematics (BSM).
The Maryville University online BSM program combines a solid foundation for developing math and analytical skills with a range of electives supporting many other specialties. The BSM includes a built-in minor in data science that prepares students for careers in coding (R, Python, and SQL), machine learning, and mathematical modeling. Among the program’s electives are discrete mathematics, statistics, and predictive modeling.
The Women Who Lead the STEM Field, and How They Got There
Analysts investigating the lack of women in STEM emphasize the need to present young women and girls with role models. One way to encourage girls and young women to consider a career in STEM is by highlighting the contributions of women in tech fields, both in the past and in the present day.
More effort is being made to promote the work of such pioneering women as Lillian Moller Gilbreth, an industrial engineer and psychologist in the early 20th century who consulted with many large corporations on efficiency and organization structures. Gilbreth was the first female engineering professor at Purdue University and the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Many other female pioneers in STEM are being celebrated more widely:
- Lady Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born in 1815. From an early age, Lady Lovelace was trained by her “mathematics-loving” mother, Annabella Milbanke, “in a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics,” according to Sydney Padua on the site Finding Ada. Lady Lovelace met Charles Babbage while she was still in her teens, and she took a special interest in Babbage’s proposed analytical engine, a mechanical computing machine considered by many to be the first modern computer. The device was never fully built, but plans show it was based on a punch card operating system. An article written by Lady Lovelace described the analytical engine and its punch card system. In the article, Lady Lovelace predicted the enormous potential of computer technology. Included in Lady Lovelace’s article were the first “computer programs.”
- In 1922, Edith Clarke became the first professional female electrical engineer in the U.S. Clarke was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015.
- Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in space when she joined a nine-day mission of the Discovery space shuttle in 1993. Dr. Ochoa was the second woman and first Hispanic to serve as director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
- In her 44-year career as a computer scientist, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper developed COBOL and other computer languages written in English rather than mathematical notation. Admiral Hopper is considered the inventor of the modern programming language.
- The contributions of Katherine Johnson to space exploration cannot be overstated. In addition to calculating the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s historic flight as the first American in space, Johnson did the same calculations for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969.
- The publication in 1964 of marine biologist and environmentalist Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” is now seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.
Contemporary role models for women in STEM include Véna Arielle Ahouansou and Alejandra Estanislao, who are profiled by The New York Times‘ Celestine Bohlen as young women who have already made significant contributions to medical information technology and software engineering, respectively. Both Ahouansou and Estanislao emphasize the need to overcome the “blind spot” men in tech fields have toward their female colleagues.
Women are leaders in the vanguard of nearly every field under the STEM umbrella. Among them are these distinguished and talented professionals:
- Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, a nonprofit that aims to “change how we participate in government.” Pahlka co-founded the United States Digital Service in 2014, and from 2013 to 2014 was the U.S. deputy chief technology officer. Earlier in her career, Pahlka served as an executive in the computer game industry. She is also a proponent of the maker movement that encourages people to “mash up” and “tinker” with the devices and technologies in their lives.
- Dr. Jedidah Isler, the first African-American woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale University, is a leader in the study of “supermassive, hyperactive” black holes as well as a leading advocate promoting inclusiveness in STEM.
- Dr. Jean Bennett is a professor of ophthalmology at the Center for Advanced Retinal and Ocular Therapeutics for the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Bennett is a pioneer in the field of gene therapy and is featured in the PBS documentary “The Gene Doctors.”
- Dr. Fran Bagenal chairs NASA’s Outer Planet Assessment Group and serves as professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder. When she joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in 1977, Dr. Bagenal was the first female scientist to be employed at the facility.
- In 2014, mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University became the first woman to be awarded a Fields medal by the International Mathematical Union. The Fields medal is considered the greatest honor in mathematics. Mirzakhani was selected for her research on dynamics and geometry, particularly in “celestial mechanics,” such as mapping how the sun, the moon, and Earth interact.
- Jacinta Yap is a Ph.D. student and Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the University of Liverpool’s QUASAR group, where she studies proton therapy, an innovative cancer treatment that promises to be more effective than conventional radiotherapy.
Resources for STEM Leadership Development
The growing awareness of the importance of women in STEM is evident in the many resources dedicated to encouraging interest in technology subjects and improving access to education and professional development opportunities.
- The Center for Creative Leadership’s Patty Burke describes in “Leadership Development Training for Women in STEM Careers” a program that is intended to increase the percentage of STEM management positions held by women, in part by reversing the growing “quit rate” of women who abandon their STEM careers.
- In “How to Inspire More Young Women to Enter STEM in 2018,” Moira Forbes interviews four female engineering students at New York University about their advice for girls and women interested in STEM. The women won the recent $50,000 Idea Incubator grant competition to improve “access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation” for women and girls. Their advice includes being confident and curious, taking advantage of your unique perspectives, finding female role models, and not worrying about not being a math whiz.
- Dataconomy’s Valarie Romero lists “Three Traits That Make Women Perfect Leaders in STEM”: personalized mentorship, emotional intelligence, and communication.
- “Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing” is an extensive report issued by the American Association of University Women in 2015. Written by Christianne Corbett and Catherine Hill, the report examines gender bias in college environments and in workplaces. The authors have many recommendations for employers, men and women working in engineering and computing, parents, girls, educators, colleges and universities, and policymakers.
Resources for Further Learning and Professional Growth
- Women in STEM Resources describes itself as “a repository … for those interested in learning about the challenges facing women and minorities in science.”
- The Society of Women Engineers collects the latest reports, posts, and podcasts on Research and Trends for Women in STEM. A recent entry describes research on boosting the success of female community college students who transfer to baccalaureate STEM programs.
- “The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology” compiles audio recordings of women in government telling the histories of their own heroes in STEM.
- Futurity offers a guide that describes “How to Make STEM More Inclusive of Black Women.” Written by Cailin Riley-Missouri, the guide covers such subjects as how to identify and address “micro-aggressive behaviors” that reflect “implicit biases.”
- “Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate” is a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that emphasizes the importance of STEM education and higher expectations for girls aged 15 and younger.
- STEM Women is a blog created to “make women in STEM more visible to the public” and to “promote careers for women in STEM.”
- STEMinist Profiles highlights the stories of successful women from diverse backgrounds who work in a variety of STEM fields, including student researchers, entrepreneurs, founders of nonprofits, government officials, and business executives.