The gender gap in the STEM field is vast and narrow. STEM remains a male-dominated field, with women representing less than 18% of college graduates majoring in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math degree in the US. Why is this? What can businesses and institutions of higher learning do to encourage girls and women to enter these important – and lucrative – fields?
Why the lack of women in STEM professions?
The statistics about the small percentage of women in STEM professions are surprising, especially in advanced societies that are gender-progressive. And the reasons for this are both complex and puzzling. Below we will explore some of the different reasons why more women aren’t entering the world of STEM and some solutions experts say can bridge this gender gap in a meaningful way.
It’s NOT a lack of aptitude – women excel in technical testing
It was once thought that women simply didn’t have the aptitude to advance in engineering and science. Not remotely true, according to a paper published in Psychological Science by David C. Geary and Gijsbert Stoet. According to this paper, which analyzed an international database of adolescent achievement in STEM, girls achieved the same or better scores than boys. Moreover, more girls were better qualified and equipped for college STEM studies than had actually chosen it for their college major.
On the flip side of this study, they found that the higher the country’s national gender equality, the more disparate the difference in the sexes became in terms of a pursuit of a STEM career.
So, according to scientific studies, girls are more than capable of STEM careers – but they’re not entering them. This puzzling paradox can be explained in the following three ways:
Societal pressures and stereotypes
In many societies, the desire to “fit in” causes women to choose other careers than STEM – after all, the media doesn’t often show pictures of women and minorities in STEM-related roles. Many women find it’s tough to “swim upstream” and choose instead to go in a direction where they’re certain they will fit in.
In a New York Times article, we are reminded of the popular show “The Big Bang Theory” about a bunch of geeky but successful male “science nerds.” The few women scientists featured on the show are either shrieky or uber-neurotic – both of which are pejorative caricatures of women that are dissimilar to the way the men are portrayed on the show.
Lack of encouragement from teachers, parents, and role models
Because women also tend to excel in verbal and relationship skills, they are often encouraged to go into fields that will maximize their advantages in these areas. Unfortunately, these efforts tend to minimize other areas of female talent that are so sorely needed in the STEM world. STEM jobs are a major area of economic growth, so the absence of women results in a lack of diversity and lost opportunities for women to excel financially as well.
According to an article in Entrepreneur magazine, gender discrimination has deterred many women from the STEM field, while others have dropped out altogether. The article cites a survey conducted by Girls Who Code, where half the women surveyed either had a negative experience applying for a STEM job or at least know another woman who has. Moreover, of those women, a quarter of them said their job interviews consisted of biased questions and emphasized their “personal attributes” as opposed to their skills and experience in STEM.
So what’s to be done, and who can help?
Teachers and influencers of our youth are beginning to rave en masse about the future of STEM to their students. Showcasing pictures, examples, and articles of successful female STEM professionals, educational leaders have learned that the more “cool” they can make STEM, the more young girls will begin overcoming fears of stereotyping and make moves toward careers for which they are highly qualified.
In addition, hiring departments at corporations should be more broadly taking advantage of emerging automated resume and qualification vetting tools. This could dramatically reduce the potential for gender bias discrimination by assessing job candidates purely on skillsets, education, and experience.
Finally, governments, industry trade organizations, and academic institutions are starting to jump on the bandwagon of running public awareness campaigns aimed at women and minorities, touting the stimulation and advantages that a STEM career can provide.
Promoting female role models, positive industry trends, and the lucrative career path STEM provides will help eliminate stigmas associated with these important industries, and put girls and women on the fast track to realizing a rewarding career in STEM.
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