Where Are the Women in STEM?

Women earn more college degrees than men, yet the disciplines in which they’re earning them are largely outside STEM fields. With the notable exception of some biology degrees, women aren’t going to school for a STEM education. That’s a problem for everyone; less competition and innovation slows down growth across multiple sectors. Diverse perspectives benefit companies financially, too. Auto manufacturers incorporate features that appeal to female car buyers when they employ women as part of their design team. Voice recognition software that works with all voices opens new accessibility options for women. Bioengineering industries save more lives when they use different techniques and tools for female patients.

It’s also an issue on a larger societal scale if roughly half the population feels shut out from some of the most important and lucrative jobs available.

How big is the gap? In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that roughly 3 in 4 STEM workers were men. That difference is even more extreme in engineering fields: Women comprise just 13 percent of working engineers. If the number of women who choose to leave the workplace drives these percentages down, the figures are still far from the roughly 50/50 balance of men and women in the population as a whole. Universities have spent decades researching the reason for the gap, but even if it were due to an innate difference in interests between men and women, those women who are interested in STEM could be lost before they ever set foot on a college campus.

What Parents and Schools Can Do

An education in engineering doesn’t start in college. It often begins well before grammar school when children first start to explore their environments by stacking blocks, assembling LEGO creations, and tapping on tablets. Giving girls ways to become familiar with engineering in ways that connect it with their talents can go a long way toward fostering a lifelong interest in it. A nature-loving child, for example, might benefit from aligning her interest with environmental engineering and climate science. One who enjoys computer games can be encouraged to design her own. If she’s fascinated with rocks and minerals, she might be a budding petrochemical engineer or mineralogist.

Boys deserve encouragement too, of course, but they typically get it from parents and schools. They’re praised for their engineering ingenuity while girls tend to be complimented on their artistic sensibilities. When possible, look for ways to encourage young people in ways that relate to the abilities they express, not just the ones that correlate with gender expectations.

What You Can Do

You may not be a parent or an educator, but you still play an essential role in opening engineering up to more talented women.

  • Be a mentor – All novice engineers benefit from a mentor who can help them learn the ropes. For women, having a more experienced engineer smooth the transition from classroom to company is especially important. A mentor helps new hires find their fit in the workplace.
  • Be welcoming – Whether you’re at the start of your own engineering career or are already well-established, treating women as team members goes a long way toward getting the best work from your organization’s new hires.
  • Be an advocate – If you’re in a supervisory position, remain open to hiring qualified applicants from all walks of life. Consider how different perspectives could benefit your department and seek out employees who can give you those new outlooks.
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