In case you missed it, here’s PART I of our Women and STEM series: “Where’s Rey?”
Let’s be real: Taking on the topic of women and STEM is no small feat. In fact, it’s proven to be quite the daunting task. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of reading articles, and then perhaps more dangerously, reading the comments on those articles where I’ve seen a plethora of reactions. Some of them enraged me. A few gave me pause. Several claim that making STEM fields more accessible to women is tantamount to destroying the integrity of the work. Others ask why men aren’t encouraged to participate in careers, such as nursing, that are predominantly pursued by women. (Personal experience and a brief scan of internet articles tell me that men are very much sought after in the nursing field, and advocates encourage men to become nurses. A more thoughtful and researched response is appropriate, but that will have to be saved for another day.) In my estimation, the underlying tone in many of these comments is frustration.
I decided the best place to begin would be to consider the status quo. I started with statistics. Big surprise! There are a lot of statistics available when it comes to women in STEM. Here are a few:
Getting Smart notes that there has been a rise in college-educated women in the workforce. Between 2000 and 2009, the portion increased from 46% to 49%. Nonetheless, the female share of the STEM workforce remained the same, at 24%. Compared to men, twice as many women holding STEM degrees end up in non-STEM jobs, such as healthcare and education. Even when men and women hold the same degree, the percentage of men working in STEM jobs is triple or quadruple that of women. National Girls Collaborative Project reports that some STEM fields are more populated by women than others. For example, 57.3% of bachelors’ degrees are conferred upon women. 50.4% of science and engineering degrees are awarded to female graduates. More than half of all graduates with degrees in biology are women. In contrast, when it comes to computer sciences, physics, and engineering programs, less than 20% of graduates are female.
According to Million Women Mentors, women comprise 20% of graduates from engineering programs, but only 11% of practicing engineers are female. As their careers continue, even fewer women remain in STEM. 12% of female graduates have degrees in STEM fields, but ten years after graduation, only 3% are still working in the same field. This fact does not appear to be linked to lack of pay, as women earn 33% more in STEM jobs than in non-STEM jobs. Researchers refer to the drop off of female participation in STEM fields as the “leaky pipeline.”
Some of you may be thinking, “So what?” Among the comments I read, there were assertions that gifted engineers have successful careers – regardless of gender. I have no doubt that there is truth to that statement. Similarly, I feel confident that most would agree that the goal of increasing the number of women in STEM is not to lower the bar and allow those who aren’t qualified or skilled to find success. The point is to increase the pool of available qualified professionals, and the most obvious place to start is the underrepresented groups. Women and minorities are that largely untapped resource.
Still, why should we be investing time and effort into encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM fields? If they aren’t interested or can’t survive the competitive field, maybe they would be happier in fields that are more welcoming to women. Even if we accept this premise (I don’t), there’s another factor to consider: The National Center for Women & Information Technology cites projections from the U.S. Department of Labor that there will be 1.4 million computer-related job openings by 2020, and current graduation rates in computing will only allow for 30% of these positions to be filled. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2014 that some companies are investing in programs that encourage girls and minorities to pursue careers in STEM; these companies recognize the lack of diversity due to fewer females graduating with degrees in STEM fields and that this shortfall has created difficulty in filling open positions within their organizations. While these statistics tell us what is happening, they do not tell us why.
Determining what causes, or is thought to cause, the exodus of females from STEM fields at every level from K-12 students to mid-career professionals is beyond the scope of these blog posts; however, I will attempt to identify some of the factors causing the “leaky pipeline” and various recommendations to plug the leak. I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I want to share my experience with this issue. Most importantly, I hope to engage others in considering, discussing, and contributing to this conversation.