Why are there so few women in STEM?

Tara Fernandez
Mar 6 · 4 min read

Gender disparities continue to plague academia and industry, but global initiatives are trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

Maude Abbott via Wikipedia

Considered a world-renowned authority on congenital heart disease in her time, Maude Abbott (pictured left) was among Canada’s earliest female medical graduates and researchers.

Graduating as class valedictorian from McGill University in 1880, Abbott made several substantial advances in her field, publishing over 100 books and articles.

Perhaps most admirable was her unwavering dedication to overcome the obstacles facing women in medical research at the time. Over a century on, significant breakthroughs in policies and general attitudes have created opportunities for women to take their place as equals on the research stage. A closer look at diversity among scientists in both research and industry, however, reveals that a gender disparity still exists.

A recent report by the The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) confirms this: Less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Other studies highlight that women in STEM fields are also paid less for their research, publish less and don’t progress to senior academic and principal investigator levels like men do.

Even upon successfully obtaining a senior position in academia, women only take home 88% of the earnings compared to their male counterparts. Similarly, the lack of proportional representation is evident when it comes to leaders in the biotechnology industry. Studies have indicated that for the last five decades, women in the US never represented more than 10% of scientific advisory boards. Such demographic trends in research pose serious concerns to women starting out and wishing to rise through the ranks.

Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

What’s the problem?

What are the main hurdles that women in science face? An issue that has persisted, particularly in the realm of academia, is the challenge women face in obtaining tenure-track positions in university. Implicit biases may come into play during the hiring process (often by male-dominated recruiting panels), leading to women with equally impressive resumes being ranked second-best to their male counterparts. Wenneras and Wold found that female postdoctoral researchers had to publish significantly more articles in high-ranking journals to obtain similar peer-reviewed academic rankings as male researchers.

Even after being hired, studies show that there is a significantly higher turnover rate for women in academia, with many picking alternative career paths instead. Interestingly, the workplace environment is often a major contributing factor to this phenomenon. Indeed, dissatisfaction with the culture and attitudes within the faculties, as well as insufficient leadership, funding and career advancement opportunities lead to women leaving academia.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

The balance between career and family is often raised as being instrumental in women being under-represented or not going down traditional academic routes. Juggling equally demanding work and home duties, particularly childcare responsibilities, is a daily reality for many women researchers. While many are able to excel at both simultaneously, statistics point to gender disparities occurring over time for researchers in science and technology.

Among professors who had babies within five years of their PhDs, for example, 77% of men achieved tenure 12 years after receiving their doctorates. In comparison, only 53% of women achieved the same success. To tackle this issue, employers should be mindful in facilitating the transition of women from career breaks for maternity or childcare. Stereotypes and attitudes may be changing in the academic landscape. However, it is a shared responsibility to ensure that women are not disadvantaged professionally because of their choices outside the workplace.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering from Pexels

Promoting and retaining women in science and technology require a team effort involving individuals, employers, universities and governments. Also, increasing public awareness and championing those pursuing an academic research career is necessary to raise the profile of women in the university sector.

In a bid to end the imbalance, the UN holds an International Day of Women in Science on February 11 to shed light on the issue. In addition, UIS is creating a framework of indicators to better understand the influences that shape women’s decisions to enter a career in STEM. They are also interested in analyzing how family decisions, financial considerations and a discrimination in a male-dominated workplace can affect their careers.

Ultimately, this data will help shape research communities that promotes diversity and equality, helping women innovators soar to new levels of excellence.

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Tara Fernandez

Written by

Cat person, PhD-qualified Cell Biologist & Science Writer. Interested in trends and emerging technologies in the biopharma industry.

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

Tara Fernandez

Written by

Cat person, PhD-qualified Cell Biologist & Science Writer. Interested in trends and emerging technologies in the biopharma industry.

The Shadow

We publish inspiring stories about different topics for a productive and entertaining life

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