According to Italian experimental particle physicist and first-ever woman General Director of CERN, Fabiola Gianotto, “Science has no passport, no gender, no race, no political party…science is universal and unifying.” However, according to the American Association of University Women, women still make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with a particularly high gender gap in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering.
STEM fields are typically viewed as masculine, yet the concept of a “math brain” shows no cognitive biological differences between men and women. According to a study conducted by Stanford, boys from higher-income and predominantly white areas did perform significantly higher in math, even compared to girls attending those same schools. However, girls score higher than boys in math in lower-income, predominantly African American areas, which account for 25% of our school districts. Why the disparity? One administrator from a predominantly white district observes, “Teachers, who are predominantly women, may have math anxiety from their own childhood stigmas, and they assume girls need to work harder to achieve the same level as boys.” The response was different when the same question was asked of a predominantly African American elementary school. “We know that STEM fields tend to perpetuate male-dominated cultures that may not support women and minorities, but my students don’t yet. They just do their math.”
Underrepresentation in the Workforce
Girls have fewer role models to inspire their interest in STEM fields, seeing limited examples of female scientists and engineers in books, media and popular culture. There are even fewer Black women role models in math and science. Serita Acker, an internationally recognized creator of academic programs to increase underrepresented students in the STEM fields reports, “The last time I watched a movie or TV show about a person of color who was a scientist, engineer, or mathematician was ‘Hidden Figures’ and that came out in 2016.” Which is in part to blame for the fact that by the time students post-secondary, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors — in fact, only around 21% of engineering majors are women and only around 19% of computer and information science majors are women.
Did You Know?
- Nearly 80% of the healthcare workforce are women, but only about 21% of health executives and board members are women, and only about a third of doctors.
- 38% of women who major in computers work in computer fields, and only 24% of those who majored in engineering work in the engineering field.
- Men in STEM’s annual salaries are nearly $15,000 higher per year than women
- Latina and Black women in STEM earn around $33,000 less than their male counterparts.
- 11.5% of people employed in STEM fields were women of color, making up approximately one-third of all women in these fields.
- Only 19 of the 616 Nobel Prizes awarded between 1901 and 2019 in Physics, Science, Medicine and Physiology were awarded to women.
The future of STEM is female.
With women representing just shy of half of today’s workforce, you don’t have to have a math brain to know that the current gender gap doesn’t add up.
Here are a few easy ways for educators and parents to close it.
- Scale back focus on STEM as higher education conversation, as the journey to a career in STEM starts much younger for both genders. The early stages of education are crucial to a child’s development, and don’t always involve a book. One study found that simply having a lack of friends in a computing class can decrease the probability of a girl studying the subject by up to 33%.
- Promote engagement in technology at a younger age, which will help allow girls’ interests to develop free of societal bias. Educational institutions and governing bodies should embrace initiatives for children to become both familiar with and gain hands-on experience with technology.
- Highlight female industry voices. Or better yet, be one. That same study found that 73% of high school girls with inspirational teachers said they were interested in studying computing. This figure fell to 26% for those who did not have an inspiring role model. One way this can be achieved is by establishing mentorship programs to show how women navigate these industries while learning from real female experiences. By promoting female leaders within STEM of all races and cultural backgrounds, women will feel that the industry is more accessible to them, as they see women like themselves succeeding in it.
Who is your favorite female in STEM?