In today's technology age, many of the world's fastest-growing and lucrative careers stem from STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. Unfortunately, STEM industries are still amongst some of the most male-dominated workforces.
Currently, only 24% of women have graduated with STEM degrees.¹ Although this number is increasing, the number of men with STEM degrees is rising substantially faster, resulting in an even wider gap. While fallacies chalk this disparity up to women's disinterest and lower STEM capabilities, existing research proves women are just as STEM-capable as men.
However, environmental and social factors - such as the lack of equal-gendered representation, resources, and support - are reducing women's STEM confidence and interest. To bridge the gap, conscious efforts to increase awareness and encourage investment are needed.
Reasons for the Gender Disparity
People widely believe that women do not care about STEM subjects and are cognitively inferior to men in STEM. However, low confidence – not reduced intellect – is the reason.
A 10,000-student survey found that 60% of male students named STEM as their best subject – nearly double that of females (33%).² Despite the fact, girls and boys score very similarly in STEM subjects.
Here are several reasons why females lack confidence and interest in STEM:
Lack of Representation
Society misrepresents and under-presents STEM careers and role models to women at an early age.
From childhood through adulthood, societal norms urge females away from masculinity. For example, they receive dolls and toy ovens, while boys receive cognitive toys and video games, like Legos and Minecraft. Both of those toys, alongside many others, are great spatial awareness builders, which is a critical skill in STEM-related careers.
Plus, few female leadership positions mean fewer role models and mentors for women to choose from – a direct contributor to the female-STEM drop-off. Girls are much more likely to consider a career in STEM if they have a role model who inspires them.³
"Representation matters so much," said Ananya Asthana, President of the "Women in STEM organization. "When you're asked to name a scientist, people will name Galileo, but few people will name plenty of other women that aren't being talked about."
Lack of Community
People without a sense of community are less likely to feel engaged.
A study found that girls with friends with more gender-traditional norms are 31% less likely to pursue STEM subjects.⁴ And, a higher proportion of women who graduate from high schools with more female math and science teachers graduate with STEM degrees than those who do not.⁵
In schools with few female role models or friends with gender-liberal beliefs, females may fall victim to groupthink and follow their friends away from STEM-related classes. Or, they may gear towards more nurturing, female-dense STEM roles, such as medicine or nursing, instead of engineering.
Lack of community can also breed toxic environments. According to Smitha Murthy, Head of Product Management at Axtria, a coworker at a previous job condescended her as she nervously prepared for a huge presentation. "He told me, 'don't worry about it, you're going to talk about fluffy stuff, and people are going to fall asleep anyway.' I never forgot about that."
Unfortunately, this toxicity spreads beyond just men. "The number of women who help uplift other women is very few," said Murthy. "That's an unfortunate by-product of needing to hold onto the spot you have."
Lack of Female Workplace Support
In the workforce, companies may fail to provide the resources, upwards mobility, and environmental conditions to wire women for success.
Often, STEM jobs require employees to work long hours and have the flexibility for sometimes erratic schedules. Case-in-point, that schedule might not be possible for a nursing mother, especially when jobs are providing women minimal maternity leave. Some employers even profile women when they are pregnant or near child-bearing ages.
According to Murthy, a job once passed her over for a position they reserved for her simply because she was pregnant, despite her being a high-value employee. Unfortunately, many other women have documented their experiences of similar prejudice in the workplace.
How to Combat the Gender Disparity
To equalize the gender landscape, parents and schools should invest early in young girls' futures. Interest-sparking and skill-building should begin at home in a girl's formative years (from birth to age 8) when children are most impressionable personality and intelligence-wise. As they start building their careers, continued reinforcement and support are also needed.
Here are several methods society can deploy to encourage women in STEM:
Girls whose parents encourage them in STEM are twice as likely to stick to it.⁶ Luckily, there are plenty of ways to go about applying STEM approaches to everyday activities.
Stepping away from social media and into the wilderness is one way to blend math and science. Parents can take their children outside to expose them to new objects, shapes, etc. in different contexts. Encouraging children to count objects, or following up with questions asking what the child sees or predicts, are all effective STEM-focused methods for increasing their excitement.
"By asking the right questions, we can help stimulate investigations where students are identifying objects, making comparisons, making predictions, testing ideas, and sharing discoveries, all while observing their natural environment," said Joshua M. Sneideman from the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAEE).⁷
Parents can implement STEM across other mediums, such as educational programming, books, and unisex toys. For example, Legos, blocks, science kits, specific video games, and buildable robots can provide children a variety of different skillsets critical in STEM that can pique their interest.
As the cherry on top, parents should create healthy conversations with their daughters and encourage them to continue learning.
Preventing women from STEM drop-off requires early educational intervention. Such methods include providing girls with hands-on, real-life STEM applications using lessons optimized for their learning styles.
Research suggests that most women choose careers where they feel they can help others. And STEM careers do just that: data science, psychology, political science, information security, and biomedical jobs directly impact the lives of others. That said, schools must think outside of the cliché 'paper-mache-volcano-project' box to exemplify how STEM careers change the world.
Secondary education is also a pivotal point to combat STEM-phobia. To spark the interest, schools can partner with female STEM organizations, help girls build STEM social circles, find mentors, internships, and more. On the staff level, hiring female employees and providing hands-on activities are also beneficial. In the classroom, teachers should make examples of successful female STEM leaders to students.
Creating a female-friendly atmosphere at work involves providing women support systems while urging male buy-in through educational programs. Such includes promoting women to leadership, initiating mentorship programs, and hosting diversity and inclusion lessons and initiatives.
For example, Murthy created an executive outreach forum, "Women in Leadership," which provided women the support she hadn't received. At the end of the year, a substantial number of women in the program advanced or received promotions.
Enabling working mothers is equally essential with accommodations like flexible or adjusted schedules, daycare services, and adequate maternity leave. To supplement, companies can provide women with support networks including other working mothers, where they can share ideas and experiences while building a sense of community.
Given the rapid future growth in STEM careers, women, men, and organizations alike must sincerely work to bridge the existing STEM gap. To do so, they must actively engage and uplift women to increase their confidence across these subjects.
Meaning, schools should provide mentorship, hands-on STEM learning, and networking opportunities to girls as young as elementary school age up to high school. Meanwhile, parents at home should reinforce teachings by creating STEM-forward environments. In the workforce, a variety of opportunities to help women exist in the benefits offered, opportunity for upward mobility, and the creation of support systems.
Overall, real success occurs when people act, not just talk. In taking action, there must be buy-in from all genders to see real changes in the gender gap moving forward. After all, the industry is not inherently masculine, and its subjects require multiple perspectives that only men and women can provide.
As Asthana explains, "removing gender from the conversation of what you could be good at is the root of this disparity. It doesn't matter what your gender is. It matters about your skillset and your ability to pursue it."
- "Steady Rise for Women in STEM but Gender Gap Remains." Statista, 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.statista.com/chart/16970/women-stem/
- "Attitudes towards STEM subjects by gender at KS4." Department for Education, Feb. 2019. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/777458/Attitudes_towards_STEM_subjects_by_gender_at_KS4.pdf
- "Girls with a role model are more likely to consider a career in STEM." Microsoft News Centre UK, Apr. 25, 2018. Available at: https://news.microsoft.com/en-gb/2018/04/25/62509/
- Van der Vlueten, M. et al., "Gender norms and STEM: the importance of friends for stopping leakage from the STEM pipeline." Educational Research and Evaluation, 14, 2019. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13803611.2019.1589525
- Stearns, et. al., "Demographic Characteristics of High School Math and Science Teachers and Girls' Success in STEM." Social Problems, Feb. 2016. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/socpro/article-abstract/63/1/87/1845557?redirectedFrom=fulltext
- Choney, S., "Why do girls lose interest in STEM?" Microsoft News, Mar. 13, 2018. Available at: https://news.microsoft.com/features/why-do-girls-lose-interest-in-stem-new-research-has-some-answers-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/
- Sneideman, J. M., "Engaging Children in STEM Education EARLY!" Natural Start Alliance, Dec. 2013. Available at: https://naturalstart.org/feature-stories/engaging-children-stem-education-early