Women Are Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields

By Drew Robb July 6, 2023
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​In the U.S., women make up roughly 28 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce. Men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gap is especially high in computer science and engineering. And according to the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators, women are half as likely to complete college STEM degrees compared to men. Various studies over the years have also discovered that girls' interest in STEM generally declines as high school progresses.

Figures from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) tell a similar tale. 

Women do quite well in biological science and chemistry/materials science, where they make up 46 percent and 40.4 percent of the workforce, respectively. But things drop off sharply in what are traditionally more lucrative fields such as computer and mathematical occupations (25.2 percent) and engineering and architecture (16.5 percent). Only 21 percent of engineering majors and 19 percent of computer science majors are women. Even if they graduate, they might not find work in those sectors: 38 percent of women who major in computers work in that field, and 24 percent of those who majored in engineering work in engineering.

"Only 11 percent of teen girls say they plan to pursue a STEM career, compared to 35 percent of boys—we need to change that," said AAUW CEO Gloria L. Blackwell.

Solving A Sy-STEM-ic Problem

These numbers aren't that different from others seen over the last 25 years. So, what is to be done beyond drawing attention to the divergence?

Various groups are working on it. Play Like a Girl, for example, is all about connecting girls to brilliant women in STEM via mentoring programs. 

"It's important that girls view STEM fields as a place where they belong, and mentorship plays a powerful role in changing their perspectives," said Kimberly Clay, founder and CEO of Play Like a Girl. "If girls are exposed to strong women role models and mentors in STEM, a career in these fields will seem as attractive and attainable as any other."

She stressed that mentorship increases self-confidence, boosts communication skills and enhances leadership qualities that will benefit girls throughout their careers. More exposure to female scientists, engineers and innovators today allows girls to imagine themselves in similar roles in the future.

Tech Disconnect

Boston Consulting Group predicted that 90 percent of the most attractive jobs in the coming years will reside in tech. However, only 20 percent of U.S. tech students are female, and a study from Accenture found that 50 percent of women who break into tech leave the industry before age 35.

The U.S. approach to this issue has largely been centered around eliminating the gender pay gap. Beqom's Leveling the Paying Field report found that tech workers were more likely than all other sectors to suspect gender-based and age-based pay gap problems within their organizations. Only 53 percent of tech workers think their employers' plans to curb pay gaps will be effective.

Such pay gaps discourage both male and female talent: 53 percent of tech workers said they would pursue a job at a different employer with lower pay gaps. Across all sectors, 75 percent of Millennials are more likely to work for an organization that discloses pay gaps. When asked who is most responsible for closing pay gaps in their workplace, 37 percent of tech workers placed the onus on managers to drive equitable compensation, and 26 percent said they believe responsibility lies in the C-suite and boardroom.

"It's important for all industries, especially IT, to work to increase the number of women in the sector," said Tanya Jansen, co-founder of Beqom. "Technology employers that take proactive steps to increase internal and external awareness about the need to hire more women at all levels have seen progress." 

Further efforts in the U.S. include Gender Inequality in Tech Cities and groups such as Change Catalyst, Girl Develop It, Girls in Tech, League of Women Coders, TechLadies, TechWomen and Women in STEM. Employers are also increasingly forming employee resource groups to support professional development.

"To boost the number of women working in IT, there must be greater awareness and interest in pursuing IT careers among young women," Jansen said. "Once women are hired, employers must continue to support their growth and professional development."

Glass Ceiling

There may be some high-profile female CEOs in tech. But they are not that common. Women make up less than 20 percent of corporate leadership team members, according to the Global Gender Diversity report published by Altrata. And 52 women for every 100 men receive promotions in the tech industry.

Those that succeed talk about working hard, learning continuously and being open to new things.

"My advice for girls who wish to pursue a career in technology is to enjoy new and different things, as the field is full of opportunities for women," said KJ Kusch, global field chief technology officer for WalkMe, a digital adoption platform in San Francisco. "Learn relevant tech skills, gain experience and be open to opportunity. You should also ask yourself what success looks like and build a network to help you get there, such as mentors, change agents and life coaches who help you identify why you are unique and what is a priority while helping you build confidence. And lastly, don't assume you'll be treated differently."

Drew Robb is a freelance writer in Clearwater, Fla., specializing in IT and business.

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