Women in STEM

The world needs more women in STEM fields

6 min read
Raubi Marie Perilli

Women make up half the population. They account for 55 percent of undergraduates enrolled at four-year universities in the United States. Yet they hold only 25 percent of jobs in STEM. Why are women evenly represented in colleges, but not more widely represented in this industry? And more importantly, how can we change this trend and increase the number of women in STEM?

First off, what is STEM?

STEM is a curriculum and industry that includes four categories:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Math

STEM college majors range from information technology, computer systems networking, and computer engineering to biological sciences, physics and math, among many others.

Careers in STEM include positions for computer programmers and IT managers to financial analysts and accountants to biochemists, medical scientists and civil engineers, among others.

Who is working in STEM?

A STEM education leads to a STEM career that can be high-paying, rewarding and impactful. Yet many women don’t make it to that point in their professional lives. The number of women in STEM represents an average of less than 25 percent of the workforce in these fields.

According to the National Science Board:

  • 33.8 percent of environmental engineers are women.
  • 35.2 percent of chemists are women.
  • 22.7 percent of chemical engineers are women.
  • 17.5 percent of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women.
  • 17.1 percent of industrial engineers are women.
  • 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers are women.
  • 10.7 percent of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women.
  • 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers are women.

While it is worth noting that there is a balanced number of women in biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences (48 percent), there aren’t enough women in STEM as it relates to tech, engineering and math. And that’s a problem.

Why is it important for more women to be in STEM fields?

Having more women in STEM fields benefits business, supports innovation, and presents opportunities to women.

Businesses with a diverse workforce are more successful. Studies have shown that adding women to organizations produces better results. Diverse thought can trigger innovation and improved financial performance. A Catalyst study found that companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by:

  • 53 percent in return on equity.
  • 42 percent in return on sales.
  • 66 percent in return on invested capital.

STEM jobs are high-paying and satisfying. Careers in STEM include high-paying positions. A report by Chmura found that “STEM occupations paid an average of $85,200 compared with $45,100 for non-STEM occupations.”

There are many STEM jobs that need to be filled. Many industries in STEM are growing, which means there is an increasing demand for workers to fill positions.The Chmura report also noted the rise in job growth for STEM-related positions.

Job growth from 2005 to 2015:

  • STEM jobs: 9.8 percent
  • Non-STEM jobs: 4.5 percent

Job growth predictions for 2015 to 2025:

  • STEM jobs: 10.1 percent
  • Non-STEM jobs: 6.5 percent

Women need a voice in STEM. When women, or any group, are underrepresented in a major field or industry, their perspective can be overlooked.

For years, drug development testing was done almost exclusively on men. Women weren’t included in studies, and therefore, some drugs were not produced with a woman's biological makeup in mind. Drugs and recommended dosage were designed specifically with male biology in mind, which caused medical problems for some women as their bodies did not handle the prescriptions the same way.

When women are involved, they can share a more broad perspective and present a need that may go unnoticed in a less diverse group.

How can we increase the number of women in STEM?

To increase the number of women in STEM, we have some work to do. Thankfully, there are already some initiatives in place. We just need to focus on further developing these platforms to help draw more women into STEM fields.

Change the perceptions of gender roles in STEM. Because men have primarily filled the roles of many STEM jobs, there is a stereotype that makes it seem as though it is not a field for women.

This stereotype might stop women from choosing STEM as a career path.

As reported by National Public Radio, a study conducted at the University of Amherst found that women who don’t feel like they belong tend to de-identify or move away from career fields. Women who don’t feel like they belong in STEM frequently choose to take another path.

What’s worse is that women who do choose to enter STEM fields are often unfairly judged. Research at Yale showed that there was a clear gender bias in hiring for science-related jobs:

“Half the scientists were given the application with a male name attached, and half were given the exact same application with a female name attached. Results found that the “female” applicants were rated significantly lower than the “males” in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.” ~ Scientific American

We need to work to remove this bias and make a more inclusive environment for women in STEM.

Highlight the accomplishments of women in STEM. One way to make women realize that they have a place in STEM is highlighting the accomplishments and successes of women who are already in the field. We need to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of women such as:

  • Women in STEM Joanne LiuMargaret Hamilton, who developed the on-board software that helped the Apollo missions land on the moon.
  • Dr. Joanne Liu, physician and international president of Doctors without Borders, who was the first to respond to and help contain the Ebola outbreak in Guinea.
  • NSA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectory for the first American in space.

Teach girls and young women about their options in STEM. We need to start this education early. We need to leverage programs like Girls Who Code and She++ Ambassadors to show girls in elementary school to young women in college that they belong and can succeed in the STEM field.

Build strong support networks for women in STEM. Then, once women find their way to STEM fields, we need to keep them there. We need to support and encourage organizations that help women find the mentorships and community. Some organization filling that need include:

Women in STEM TechWomen
TechWomen is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Women represent half of the world’s population and make up more than half of the students earning undergraduate degrees. It’s time that they find an equal role when it comes to jobs in science, technology, engineering and math.