Women in STEM Fields: Everything You Need to Know
In this article
Women are making meaningful headway in STEM fields. Read on to learn more about the challenges women are overcoming and the opportunities that are helping close the gender gap.
It’s no secret that STEM professions, shaped by years of gender and racial bias and discrimination, lack diversity. Despite accounting for more than half of all graduates from biomedical sciences university programs, around 40% of all physical sciences and technologies courses, and a third of all computer science masters’ programs, only 27% of STEM jobs and engineering occupations in the United States are held by women.
But progress, although slow, is being made. Companies are waking up to the fact that lacking diversity doesn’t just look bad, it adversely affects the bottom line. When STEM occupations don’t include women at all levels, algorithms can skew toward the biases of the dominant group, interpretations of data insights don’t have the benefit of different points of view, and companies building products and services for everyone end up with glaring blind spots.
In a quest for diversity and inclusion, organizations and industry leaders are addressing the gender disparity in the engineering workforce by bolstering STEM education enrollment among historically underrepresented groups, overhauling outdated hiring and recruitment practices that have created barriers to entry for women, and creating opportunities, resources, and support networks for female students and scientists.
Whether it’s software engineering, data science, machine learning research, or UX/UI design, women in STEM fields are finally beginning to see institutional as well as grassroots support.
Don’t forget to check out our pages on women in different STEM careers.
Why Are Women Underrepresented in STEM Fields?
Several factors stand in the way of gender equality in STEM fields. Below are a number of key research-backed findings on the ways women continue to be held back from entering, staying, and advancing in STEM professions.
- Lack of female role models. Studies have shown that women role models can empower and inspire women to stay in the workforce and pursue more advanced roles. In one particular study, researchers found that female students were more likely to major in STEM if they were assigned a woman professor and that junior-level employees were more likely to stay with an organization if they had women supervisors. A lack of female role models can deter young girls from considering careers in STEM, and signal that the field isn’t for them.
- Lack of transparency. The gender pay gap in tech can range from 5-10%, according to Hired, and the frustration of not knowing where they stand or how much they should be asking for is one of the reasons women in STEM feel disempowered. The lack of transparency around salary negotiations and criteria for promotions can also hold women back from applying for certain roles, advocating for themselves, and affect their confidence and sense of belonging.
- Lack of flexibility/support. Work-life flexibility plays a big role in whether women decide to stay in the workforce. “Time and time again, studies show that flexibility draws more women, and retains them, in the workplace,” according to Manon DeFelice, founder of Inkwell. “In a Pew Survey, 70% of women with families said that having a flexible work schedule was extremely important to them. The inverse is also true: Where flexibility is lacking, so too are highly accomplished women.”
- Poor messaging. “Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, and that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields,” said Adriana Kugler, a professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “But that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields.”
Women in STEM Statistics
While the number of men far outnumber the number of women in STEM occupations, the stats have gradually improved in recent years. Below are the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Percentage of women in STEM fields:
- Biological Sciences — 47.7%
- Chemists and Material Science — 42.5%
- Computer and Mathematics occupations — 25.8%
- Engineers and Architects — 15.7%
- Board members of information and technology companies — 12.2%
How Can We Get More Women in STEM Fields?
Many of the challenges that stand in the way of women building long and satisfying careers in STEM are systemic and have proven difficult for organizations to dismantle. But researchers have identified several strategies that can have an immediate and meaningful impact on the working lives of women in STEM.
- More mentorship and support. Mentors are a crucial part of career development because of the insight, guidance, and support they provide. While male students and men in the technical workforce have historically had plenty of mentors to choose from, women have tended to have less access to women role models and mentorship opportunities. Mentors of all stripes play a valuable role in advocating for women, sharing knowledge, and carving out space for newcomers to be heard. Mentors can also influence an organization’s culture, ensuring that workplaces are safe, welcoming, and nurturing to women engineers, designers, and scientists.
- More supportive workplaces. A supportive workplace can mean many things, but research has found that companies that prioritize work/life flexibility, offer parental leave, are transparent about salaries and promotions, and address their male-dominated, exclusionary cultures have greater success at attracting women employees and preventing attrition.
- Getting an image makeover. STEM professions suffer from a slew of negative stereotypes—specifically that they’re masculine and that women don’t excel at STEM subjects. “The myth of the math brain is one of the most self-destructive ideas in American education,” according to the American Association of University Women. “Research shows no innate cognitive biological differences between men and women in math.” Yet, the gender stereotypes persist, resulting in many girls losing confidence in math by third grade. To address this, the AAUW recommends raising public awareness of the ungendered nature of STEM so that parents can encourage their daughters as much as their sons into math and science.
For those considering careers in STEM but are intimidated or feel like they might not find their footing, women currently working in STEM have the following advice:
“The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone is to ask for help,” said Emily Bailey, a data scientist at Uber. “When you have a goal in front of you, it can be daunting to see how big it is, so the first place I tend to ask for help is: how do I break this up into smaller pieces? And then, even if the first piece is hard, you can ask for help every step of the way if you need to.”
“Every software engineer struggles a lot, even if they don’t show it,” Anna Carey, a software engineer at Artsy said in a blog post. “If I could shake my 18-year-old self, full of self-doubt and about to give up on computer science for what she thought would be forever, I would tell her: You have everything you need to make it as an engineer if you’re ready to persist when you feel lost and become really good at Google.”
Scholarships for Women in STEM
A growing number of organizations have thrown their support behind achieving gender diversity and parity in STEM, namely through offering scholarships, fellowships, grants, and outreach programs. Higher education STEM scholarships in fields such as mathematics, computer science, statistics, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, and data science are available for those pursuing undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees. There are also paid internship programs that support young women and other newcomers who are entering the STEM workforce and require additional professional workplace support and hands-on experience.
On the online courses/bootcamp front, Springboard has partnered with Women Who Code to offer ten scholarships worth $1,000 each to women who enroll in Springboard’s Data Science Career Track, Software Engineering Career Track, or the Machine Learning Career Track.
Women in STEM by Country
Women in the United States made up 27% of the STEM workforce in 2019.
Here is how the U.S. compares to other countries:
- Australia – 27%
- Bulgaria – 30%
- Canada – 25%
- France – 18%
- Ireland – 19%
- Japan – 13%
- Latvia – 25%
- Netherlands – 16%
- New Zealand – 17%
- Romania – 26%
- Turkey – 10%
- United Kingdom – 16%
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