The Lack of Women in STEM

Have you ever searched for images of engineers, mathematicians, etc.? If you have, the results have been mostly men.

Depiction of a working, male engineer (Credits: Hugh Jones)

The lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers has been an issue for many years. A report by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy states that the development of STEM is a crucial part of global leadership and the best way to develop STEM is to draw from a diverse set of viewpoints that come from a combination of both women and men. However, too many brilliant women are not given the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and experience. Statistics indicate that women make up nearly half of the workforce, however they hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs. In addition, women hold a larger percent of STEM degrees, yet there is a major salary and position difference between women and men. Women tend to face barriers such as lower starting levels and lower pay than men, and sadly are often sexually harassed by the men they work with. These harsh realities often keep women from pursuing STEM careers even though it is what they are good at and truly love to do.

The Barriers They Face

Since women who enter the STEM workforce work mainly with men, they often face sexual harassment from their co-workers on a daily basis.

“The men who controlled access to the computer made me listen to a barrage of sexist teasing if I wanted to be given that day’s code to run my program.”

This form of harassment actually caused Eileen Pollack to leave her job as a computer programmer because she did not feel comfortable. As California Congresswoman, Jackie Speier, states, “a peer-reviewed study found that over a quarter of women surveyed had been sexually assaulted while conducting scientific field work, while 71 percent of women also reported that they were sexually harassed.”

The largest barrier that women face is stereotyping. As Eileen Pollack states, people often depict computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc. as socially inept young men who are naturally brilliant. Although superficial stereotypes may seem outdated, studies have shown that the publics’ image of scientists hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Today there are many television programs that portray scientists as “white or Asian male geeks”. Women tend to associate scientists with a love for video games and genetic genius. Lately the media has also put a major emphasis on male geniuses such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. People put so much emphasis on males and stereotypes that females have a rational fear that they will always be outcasts in the STEM environment.

Ted Talks

Suggested Solutions

Many experts have previously proposed solutions to increase the number of women in STEM. Girls become disinterested in math and science at a young age because they are seen as male dominate fields but it is important to keep girls involved in math and science. According to Patty L. Fagin, PhD, Head of School at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, when girls lose interest in math and science it is called the “leaky pipeline.”

As Regina Agyare, founder of Soronko, suggests girls need to be introduced at an early age to role models of other women in STEM. If there are more female mentors for the STEM program it is more than likely that girls will express more interest in the field and eventually will lead to an increase of women in STEM. Organizations such as the Association for Women in Science, Society of Women Engineers, and the Association for Women in Mathematics have all started networking and mentorship opportunities for young girls.

In addition, researchers Nilanjana Dasgupta and Jane Stout suggest institutional solutions to address the problems women face after they embark on STEM careers. These solutions include:

  • blind reviews of job applicant and publications
  • more mentoring and professional development for female STEM professionals
  • stopping the ‘tenure clock’ for a year when women have a child or other caregiving responsibilities

Implementing these solutions create a starting point on the road to repairing the “leaky pipeline.”

Solving the Problem

The best way to increase the number of women in STEM careers is to break down the barriers that are keeping them away. Women have proven that they have the intelligence and skill-set to be successful in STEM positions. All they need now is support and encouragement to pursue their desired career path. It is crucial to the development of our growing workforce to make sure these women have the support system that they need.

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