Women in STEM: A Look into the Past and the Future

Throughout history, the number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related fields has been tiny compared to their male counterparts. Women today make up 48 percent of the total workforce (U.S. Census Bureau statistics), but represent just 25 percent of STEM related careers. There have been significant breakthroughs such as the fact that 50 percent of the medicine related workforce are women as of 2017. 

However, currently only 13 percent of all engineers are women. 

This gender imbalance is referred to as the STEM gap and remains a problem in modern society. How is it that in a country like the United States where the need for people in medicine, engineering, tech are high in demand, women remain underrepresented? 

Female employment by STEM industry in 2017

Image via Wise Campaign

Women’s desire to enter STEM is not a new phenomenon. Women have been making vital contributions to science since as early as the Enlightenment era. Badass women such as Emilie du Châtelet (1706) and Caroline Herschel (1848) were few of the many who built the foundation of modern science and paved the way for future generations of aspiring engineers, doctors and scientists. They courageously took the stand against cultural stereotypes that kept women in one of either two things; the household or female-oriented jobs in nursing, education, clerical work etc. 

By no means am I stating that these careers are lesser than STEM jobs. Teachers are the backbone of society and often increase the chance of social mobility for children from low income families. I AM stating that women must be able to explore and pursue careers outside of society’s expectations. What hinders women from pursuing degrees and careers in STEM are cultural stereotypes and gender norms that are deeply embedded in society. THIS is what must be torn down and must no longer be normalized. 

Young girl works on math equation. 

Image via Mango Math 

Stereotypes such as “girls aren’t good at math” and “boys are good at science” are hurtful and especially damaging to young, impressionable girls in middle school and high school. Studies show that women who are placed in supportive environments with prominent female representation, do well in mathematics and science based tests than if they were to be placed in environments with little to no female representation. Thus it can be concluded that implicit gender biases are the source of the gender imbalance in STEM.

Studies show that gender bias rears its ugly head in higher education, college professors have been shown to implement their own gender bias when grading papers or projects with a female name versus that of a male name. It seems that this bias is prominent no matter what education level or institution. 

In order to increase the number of women in the STEM workforce there must be an active education reform to inspire and educate young girls as early as elementary and middle school. Women’s achievements in STEM should be taught and notable figures such as Marie Curie, Katherine Johnson and Rosalind Franklin should be easily recognized. Groups such as Women in STEM must be promoted and made available to all students in order for prospective students to find a place of belonging and support.

Katherine Johnson at NASA, 1966.

Image via WikiMedia

The reason why there must be a rapid reform is because an education in the sciences teaches students to develop a growth mindset which allows individuals to overcome obstacles, grow from mistakes and accept criticism. This is the key to a successful life and should not be limited to men. 

The good news is that statistics show that the number of women who earn STEM degrees annually has increased by over 50,000 in the past decade. Over 200,000 women graduated from STEM fields in 2016 in comparison with just over 140,000 in 2009 (Built By Me).

Steady Rise for Women in STEM but Gender Gap Remains 

Image via Statista 

The bad news is that the gender gap is actually growing since the number of men pursuing STEM degrees is increasing much faster than women’s. Because of this, the percentage of women with STEM degrees has dropped from 25% to 24%. As this gap increases so does the wage gap. Currently women in STEM make 89 cents per each dollar that men in the same position make. Women who obtain degrees in STEM are 45 percent more likely to pursue an unrelated career or leave their STEM related job than men (Min, 2019).

There is also the fact that women of color are severely underrepresented in this field. Out of all female STEM graduates, 86% are White or Asian. Fewer than 4% are Latinas, and less than 3% are Black (Built By Me). There are currently little to no statistics on the number of women in STEM who have children, discapacities or are members of LGBTQ+.  

10 Latinas Making Their Mark in the STEM World. 

Image via Remezcla 

There is a lack of representation of women in power and a focus on the driven, ambitious “self-made” man that is glorified in the media. Only about 15% of women make up CEO and prominent board member positions in STEM companies (Credit Suisse, 2016). There are even less minority female leaders. 

More women are pursuing STEM degrees but not at the same rate as men and women who do pursue a career in STEM have much smaller retention rates than men. The numbers are drastically lower for women of color. However, the future is not bleak. With early exposure of STEM and the breakdown of gender norms, more young girls have the chance of becoming successful scientists, engineers and businesswomen and inspire girls around the world.