In 2009, according to a Census Bureau survey, women comprised half the U.S. workforce but less than one-quarter of the STEM workforce—and that discouraging percentage had remained more or less constant since at least the early 1990s.
In the six years since, that gap has at last begun narrowing, as the percentage of women in the STEM workforce has notched up to nearly 30 percent. Another promising statistic is that California’s Harvey Mudd College awarded a majority of its engineering degrees in spring 2014 to women for the first time.
On the other hand, female students make up smaller percentages of degree-awardees in almost every STEM category tracked than they did 15 years ago, and large numbers of women continue to drop out of promising STEM careers. Research published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that gender discrimination may be a leading roadblock to women attempting to rise up STEM career ladders—a deep-seated problem that cannot be quickly or easily solved without concerted effort.
“Bias, not pipeline issues or personal choices, pushes women out of science—and that bias plays out differently depending on a woman’s race or ethnicity,” suggests University of California, Hastings School of Law professor Joan Williams in the Review. The publication’s study listed this condition as a potential factor preventing larger numbers of women from seeking STEM degrees and careers.
Even so, there has been an undeniable influx of K-12 and university female students into certain STEM subjects, and the consequent increase of female professionals in these fields has profound implications for education policy and planning. Whatever has worked well to attract women in some areas, such as medicine, should be identified, studied and replicated in sectors that have not seen similar growth.
With STEM so crucial to the American future, the cultivation of female talent in these key fields will be absolutely vital for future economic and societal well-being. Making this happen requires understanding some of the paradoxes in the data as well as considering new solutions.
Progress in Participation
Female participation in STEM degree programs, once nearly nonexistent, has made real progress. A 2009 census survey reported women comprised just 24 percent of STEM careers, the same as 2000 and just 1 percent higher than in 1993. Yet, in 2016, in some STEM industry sectors representation now ranges as high as 39 percent (chemists and material scientists) to 48 percent (biological and medical scientists). Additionally, the overall participation has risen to 28 percent by one measure.
Also, at the K-12 level, female participation in STEM courses now equals or even exceeds male participation for biology, precalculus and advanced algebra—an extremely encouraging trend that bodes well for future university freshman enrollments.
Yet there are continuing challenges. In certain fields, such as electrical, mechanical, civil and industrial engineering and computer science, female participation remains abysmally low despite our tech-infused era.
Math and computer science roles have soared in the workforce in the past two decades. Though twice as many women have joined these fields during this period, roles held by males, already dominant in these areas, have also increased greatly, thus masking some progress by females.
Media bias may also be responsible for masking female progress. Several observers and researchers have cited media bias as a real causal factor. Movies and TV shows are five to 14 times more likely to depict a STEM professional as male than female, and it’s widely believed this may influence girls and women negatively to pursue such careers.
There are plenty of important questions for policymakers, educators and communities to ponder next, including these: What has finally began moving the needle to encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM? Can more of this be done? Why aren’t certain areas (computer science, engineering) more attractive to women today, given their tech orientation and very high relative average salaries?
For those areas where female participation still lags, how can educational providers and their partners (vendors, government, etc.) accelerate this trend positively toward more balanced representation? Can better marketing and storytelling help?
The 2016 #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag, created by one female software developer with no budget and a single essay on the Medium website, went viral in summer 2015 and generated considerable, mostly positive, media coverage. More and better storytelling about female STEM outcomes and career paths seems an obvious next step.
Additionally, the Center for STEM Education for Girls is doing good work through conferences, summer institutes, and student competitions to increase girls’ participation in STEM studies. Learn more at http://www.stemefg.org.
While STEM careers and tracks are gaining steam among some female students and professionals, the battle is far from won. Between an equal increase in male participation and media bias, several biases may hinder female progress. However, this means plentiful opportunities to help move the needle. This is where policymakers and educators can join the efforts to discover how to better engage female students in STEM careers.
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