Historically, women have been systematically excluded from higher education. Although we’ve made great progress in opening education to women in recent decades, there is still a great deal of work to be done. This is especially true in the STEM fields, which see a great imbalance of male to female students compared to other college degree programs.
What Is STEM?
STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. When someone talks about STEM majors or STEM fields, they’re talking about degree programs and career paths related to these topics. This includes physics, computer science, mechanical engineering, applied mathematics, and a host of other related subjects.
Although the STEM acronym wouldn’t be coined until the 1980s, the United States first began to push STEM-related fields heavily in the late 1950s when the government passed the National Defense Education Act in response to the launch of Sputnik. The Soviet satellite spurred the U.S. to pour billions of dollars into encouraging students to study fields related to science and math to ensure that the country could become the preeminent technological power.
Today, STEM majors make up a valuable part of any major university.
The Gender Gap in STEM
One of the major criticisms of STEM has to do with the gender disparity in students who graduate with STEM degrees and enter careers related to these fields. Research has shown that women are far less likely to graduate with a STEM degree or enter a career in STEM compared to their male counterparts. Women of color are even less likely to find the encouragement they need to pursue STEM careers.
Proponents of closing the gender gap in STEM fields point out that not only does the gap reflect unfair conditions and poor treatment of women over the years, but it also reduces the quality of work and innovation. The main argument is that scientific progress relies on unique solutions that arise from diverse perspectives, and that closing the gender gap to make STEM fields more accessible helps to ensure that tomorrow’s scientists are approaching problems from a variety of viewpoints.
Women in STEM Statistics
Although we often speak of a broad gender gap that exists across STEM fields, there is a great deal of variety among STEM subfields when it comes to the exact scale and nature of this gap. Some fields may have no gap at all, or may even favor women for graduation and job placement, as is the case in the social sciences, which often have more women than men. However, others remain decidedly male-centric in both practice and principle. To understand the gender gap in STEM, it’s important to recognize how it manifests in each field.
The Gender Gap in Science
Women Earning Science Degrees
Science includes a wide range of fields and disciplines, which all experience the gender gap in different ways. However, some of the greatest offenders include physics and chemistry. Data from the American Physical Society showed that 21% of bachelor’s degrees in physics were earned by women in 2017. The problems with such a pronounced gap are further compounded by the fact that sexual harassment and gender discrimination are persistent in work related to physics.
Although undergraduate degrees in chemistry were awarded on a roughly equal basis between genders — 51% for men and 49% for women — that gap grows considerably between undergraduate and graduate school. Only 37% of PhD earners in chemistry were women, according to the same study.
Data from the National Science Foundation shows that in 2017, women made up 29% of all workers in science and engineering jobs. While that’s an improvement from 23% in 1993 and 28% in 2010, there’s clearly a lot of work that still needs to be done.
The Gender Gap in Technology
Women Earning Technology Degrees
Someone interested in a technology degree might choose to pursue a field like programming, web development, or cybersecurity. However, the gender gap is especially pronounced in the computer sciences. In 2016, only 19% of computer science degrees were awarded to women, which is down from 27% in 1997.
Women in Technological Careers
The numbers don’t get much better for women in computer science careers, with 20% of computer scientists in the U.S. in 2019 being women. This is in stark contrast to the nearly 31% of computer science jobs that were filled by women in 1993.
The Gender Gap in Engineering
Women Earning Engineering Degrees
Of all the STEM fields, engineering seems to be especially hard hit by the gender gap. In 2015, just 20% of engineering undergraduate degrees were awarded to women. As with the sciences, this percentage changes drastically depending on the exact field of engineering. Only 13% of mechanical engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, while almost 50% of environmental engineering graduates were women.
Interestingly, 23% of doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 2015. Unfortunately, women in these programs continue to face issues like sexual harassment at alarming rates.
Women in Engineering Careers
Engineering is the career most heavily affected by the gender gap of all the professional STEM fields. In 2019, only 13% of working engineers were women. While that number has improved from 8.6% in 1993, there’s still a long way to go to reach gender parity in engineering.
The Gender Gap in Mathematics
Women Earning Mathematics Degrees
Data from the NSF shows that women are performing relatively well as bachelor’s degree earners in mathematics when compared to other STEM degrees. In 2016 42% of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics were awarded to women. This is a smaller percentage of degrees as in 1997 and 2006, but only because the number of women in mathematics has failed to grow at the same rate as male math majors.
These numbers are trending opposite of what you’ll find for women who earn their doctoral degrees, which has steadily increased from 24% in 1997 up to 28.5% in 2016.
Women in Mathematics Careers
Careers in mathematics are somewhat harder to categorize than engineering or science, since people with mathematics degrees can put their skills to work in a wide variety of fields. However, 15% of tenure-track teaching jobs in mathematics are held by women. That’s roughly similar to the 18% in computer science and 14% in engineering, suggesting that mathematics faces a serious gender gap in both the workforce and in higher education.
Minority Women in STEM Fields
As with other forms of discrimination, we find that the gender gap in STEM often illustrates a socioeconomic divide. Women who belong to racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, or LGBTQ groups may have unique experiences in STEM fields that present challenges aside from their gender.
Women of Color
Many people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. This is especially true for people of Hispanic, African American, or Native American backgrounds. Women of color experience the intersection of discrimination based on their gender and race and are underrepresented compared to white men and women in STEM fields.
Asian women, though also women of color, are overrepresented in STEM fields compared to their overall portion of the population. While much of this disparity can be attributed to family motivation, many organizations have dedicated themselves toward promoting and advancing STEM education for girls including Girl Start, Girls WhoCode, and the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Women with Disabilities
The majority of scientists and engineers with disabilities are in the labor force, according to data from the NSF. However, while only 14% of scientists and engineers without disabilities are not in the workforce in any capacity, that number jumps to 31% for those with disabilities. Ultimately, having a disability makes it harder to retain employment in STEM.
It’s also important to remember that students with disabilities can face unique challenges in college. Given the harsh environments that women in STEM majors already face, it’s important to make sure that women with disabilities are given all of the tools they need to succeed and continue to diversify the workforce.
When we think about minorities in our society, we usually don’t think about veterans. However, their struggle to reintegrate back into society after serving their country is an underreported reality facing millions.
As members of the armed forces, women are afforded opportunities to learn technical skills that are marketable an easily translate into college credits. To ensure that female veterans can successfully reintegrate, we must see to it that they don’t face discrimination as women in STEM fields, and that they know where to find resources to help veterans through college.
Research has shown that LGBTQ students often face discrimination and unkind environments in STEM fields. However, while retention rates for gay men in STEM majors are lower than those of straight men, gay women were actually retained at a higher rate than straight women. However, gay women still face intense discrimination, and their retention rates are below those for straight white men. It’s critical that STEM departments provide resources for LGBTQ students to help them feel included in their college education.
The History of Women in STEM
Although improving inclusiveness for women in STEM has only recently become a hot topic, women have been making waves in STEM fields since humans began to examine the natural world. One way to bolster the ranks of future women in STEM will to be acknowledge the contributions women have made to fields like science and mathematics in the past.
Famous Women in STEM
Many women have made significant contributions to our understanding of the world, but these are only now being recognized. Below are just a few of the women who have changed the way that we think about the natural world.
Ada Lovelace was an early computer scientist. She is credited with the creation of the first computer program when she developed an algorithm for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine that would output Bernoulli numbers. Although she died of uterine cancer at age 36, her work was instrumental to the advancement of early computer science.
Marie Curie is widely regarded as the most inspirational female scientist of all time. She was also the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice; first in 1903 for her work in physics, and again in 1911 for her work in chemistry. Curie’s work dealt primarily with radioactivity, including the discovery of several radioactive elements. The radioactive element curium, which was discovered in 1944 after Curie’s death, was named in her honor.
Katherine Johnson is an African American mathematician who worked for NASA during the space race with the Soviet Union. She and her colleagues were often referred to as “human computers” due to their proficiency in mathematics, and the calculations she made were critical to putting Americans in orbit, and eventually in allowing humans to land on the moon.
Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist whose work on molecular structures formed the foundation of our understanding of the fundamental workings of things like DNA, RNA, and viruses. She died early at age 37.
Sally Ride was an astronaut, engineer, and physicist. Her position as the first American female astronaut and the third woman to travel into space, as well as her science books aimed at children, have created the legacy of an inspirational figure for many young women and girls interested in STEM fields.
Anousheh Ansari is an Iranian American engineer and businesswoman, best known for co-sponsoring the X Prize Foundation which offered a $10 million prize for the first private organization to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft. Ansari overcame difficult odds to become the first Iranian and first female Muslim in space.
Importance of Women in STEM Fields
Although individual women would benefit from the creation of more inclusive atmospheres in STEM fields, these fields can also benefit as a whole by becoming more inclusive.
Science functions best when it considers a wide range of diverse perspectives. When scientific fields exclude women, they exclude talented future scientists, as well as fresh perspectives that could be used to approach old scientific problems. In general, research has shown that diverse workplaces are happier and more productive, suggesting that STEM organizations could do better for themselves by being more inclusive.
Benefits of Women in STEM
Bringing more women into STEM fields not only improves the quality of work in those fields, but it also opens up greater career opportunities for women. In 2017, the starting salaries for STEM majors were among the highest of any majors. Encouraging more women to pursue well-paying STEM fields can help to reduce the gender pay gap.
Obstacles to Women in STEM
Women face unique obstacles when it comes to attending school and working in STEM fields. Many women in STEM report the following kinds of mistreatment from their coworkers
- Higher demands: Women report being asked to provide more evidence or being held to higher standards than their male colleagues.
- Family pressure: Many women in STEM professions report being told by a coworker that they should work less after having children.
- Feminine roles: Women report feeling pressure from coworkers to play a feminine role, such as office mother or an otherwise demure and dainty image in the workplace.
- Mistaken identity: Women — particularly African American and Latina women working in STEM — report being mistaken for custodial or administrative staff, rather than being recognized as the scientists and engineers they are.
The Gender-Equality Paradox
The Gender-Equality Paradox is a theoretical presumption that highlights a disconnect between gender equality and representation in STEM fields. As the paradox goes, in countries with a great deal of gender equality in society at large there is no corresponding equal representation for women in fields that have conventionally been male-dominated, such as many of the STEM fields.
In fact, as gender equality increases in a country, representation in STEM fields decreases. Some researchers point to countries like Sweden and Norway, which are rated very well according to gender equality, but only account for 20% female representation when it comes to STEM graduates. Meanwhile, countries like Tunisia and Algeria are ranked at the lower end of the scale for gender equality, but have much higher representation of female STEM graduates.
However, the idea of the Gender-Equality Paradox is not without its problems. Critics point out that countries with lower representation in STEM fields have a long history of excluding women from science and mathematics, which is deeply embedded into the culture that surrounds young girls as they grow up. They also point out that there is no gap in ability, since researchers found that girls performed as well or better than boys on science tests in most countries.
Closing the Gap: Solutions to Get More Women in STEM
True solutions to closing the gender gap in STEM fields must work on multiple levels. Exclusion begins in childhood, when young girls are discouraged from science and mathematics and encouraged to adopt more care-oriented work. Bad practices continue through education and into the workplace, where women are discriminated against in STEM majors and companies.
In the home, parents should take care to remind their children that they can grow up to do anything that they want, while providing a wide range of opportunities for children to explore their interests, including those related to STEM, such as coding camps and science fairs.
In education, scholarships and grants can help to bring women into STEM departments. However, it’s critical that these departments do everything in their power to prevent discrimination and sexism against female students to improve retention rates.
In the workplace, employers must work to identify and address discrimination in their hiring practices so they can produce a diverse workplace that promotes greater happiness and productivity among their employees. Best practices around manager-employee relationships and pay scales should also be identified so women are treated with equal respect by their male colleagues for their work.
Outside of schools and the workplace, broader societal changes are called for. Women are often harder hit by a couple’s decision to raise a family, forcing them to take more time off from work during critical periods in their careers, such as early on at a new job or even during their doctoral studies.
Resources and Organizations for Women in STEM
Below are resources for women who are interested in pursuing a STEM career and those who may support them.
- Smithsonian Science Education Center — A portal with information about women in STEM.
- Open Colleges — A list of programs that are dedicated to encouraging women into STEM majors and careers.
- Society of STEM Women of Color — An organization dedicated specifically to helping women of color gain access and remain active in STEM careers.
- The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine — Features resources and statistics related to women in STEM, including school performance, workplace representation, and salaries.
- Maryville University — This site includes a listing of financial aid resources, including scholarships and grants, specifically aimed at helping women.