Individuals working in STEM positions (fields of science, technology, engineering, or math) are often in greater demand and often make higher salaries. But where are the women in STEM occupying high-paying roles?
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that women make up 50% of the workforce, but only 27% of STEM workers are women.
When it comes to careers in STEM, women are significantly underrepresented. In this article I’m going to explore the why’s behind this anomaly, why it’s important to address it and offer resources to help close the gap for women in STEM.
4 reasons for growing the number of women in STEM careers
More women in STEM positions will increase the level of innovation
When you hire employees with different ideas, perspectives, and life experiences, they are able to drive innovation by offering unique solutions.
Strong demand within STEM fields
The demand for STEM careers is high offering more opportunities.
Role models are needed within STEM fields
More women in STEM will inspire and encourage younger up-and-coming generations of females.
STEM roles offer financial career stability
STEM careers typically offer higher wages, consequently resulting in more financial stability.
Good news for women pursuing careers in STEM
Intentional disruption has produced slow but upward progress.
Women pioneers like Maria Mitchell (first astronomer), Grace Hopper (Naval Officer and Programmer) and Rebecca Lee Crumpler (first African American physician) blazed the path for amazing women to follow.
When World War II created a shortage of civilian male employees called to service, the need for STEM talent grew.
Women were encouraged to join the ranks of employment and the U.S.’s “Rosie the Riveter” marketing campaign strived to “normalize” women in the workplace. When the war ended, some women left their careers to resume their roles as housewives.
The second wave of women’s liberation began in the 1960s with women touting a clear message of wanting equal pay and opportunity with male counterparts.
President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 which prohibited gender discrimination. While it didn’t eliminate the practice of gender discrimination many viewed it as a move toward addressing gender-based pay disparities.
We’ve seen real strives over the past 50 years. In 1970, women made up 38% of the workforce but only 8% of STEM workers. By 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reported women made up 48% of the workforce and 27% were STEM workers.
A current breakdown of women in STEM
Let’s break it down further, reviewing the types of STEM occupations where women are represented.
A study by Pew Research Center earlier this year showed the following:
- Women are over-represented in health-related jobs (Women make up 74% of healthcare practitioners/techs).
- Women are under-represented in physical science, computer, and engineering jobs (25% in computer jobs and 15% engineers/architects).
- Female-led startups are by far the most fruitful industry sector for women in STEM, according to Pitchbook, thanks to female medical practitioners who transition to become entrepreneurs.
- Pay disparity is real. Among 70 detailed STEM occupations reported on by the U.S. Census Bureau, women earned more than men in just one STEM occupation – computer network architects. Women represented just 8% of those in this occupation.
- The median earnings of women in STEM occupations ($66,200) make up approximately 74% of men’s median earnings in STEM ($90,000), up 2% since 2016 according to Pew.
- Women of Color face more disparity. In 2018, Black and Hispanic women, along with other underrepresented women of color, made up less than 5% of all U.S. scientists and engineers.
7 reasons women are underrepresented in STEM careers
The above-referenced stats beg the question . . . why are there so few women in STEM?
Research and data reveal 7 reasons why women are underrepresented in STEM careers.
1. Discrimination limits the number of women in STEM
The Pew study showed 74% of women in computer jobs had experienced gender-related discrimination, and the most common forms of STEM career gender discrimination reported were
- Earning less than a man doing the same job (29%)
- Having someone treat them as incompetent because of their gender (29%)
- Experiencing repeated, small slights in their workplace (20%)
- Receiving less support from senior leaders than a man doing the same job (18%)
Women can be powerful colleagues for each other
When women work in predominantly all-male workplaces, they perceive more bias. Pew Research found a majority of women working in STEM were in majority-female workplaces (55%), followed by a mix of genders (25%), and trailing with 19% of mainly all men. Nearly half of those (19%) claimed gender as a hindrance to success. In comparison, 12% in majority-female workplaces felt gender was a barrier.
Views on workplace culture norms vary, and interviews revealed that a “boys club” culture is not a selling point for many females in the STEM workforce. For instance, a Technical Consultant surveyed stated, “I’ve seen everything on the spectrum, from female-dominated teams and VPs, to being the sole female. I think women are often still the first to be asked to help plan events, parties, etc. and each of us should decide if that sounds like something we’d like to do or not.”
Laura Adam, a retired Pharmaceutical Chemist, described stronger levels of discrimination she encountered in her 30-year tenure. “You will work harder and be promoted less frequently. Any novel work or ideas will be appropriated and published by a male/supervisor. Stereotypes are still strong. That’s normal and no one will care or help. That’s the culture – you need to adapt.”
2. Stereotypes that begin in education limit the number of women in STEM
While the concept that “boys are better than girls are at math” beginsduring the early elementary school years, the “male math” brain stereotype has been debunked by dozens of studies finding that boy and girl brain function similarly during mathematical processing.
Harvard psychologist Ph.D. Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues reviewed 111 studies and concluded that men and women possess an equal aptitude for math and science. Spelke believes differences in career choices are due not to differing abilities but to cultural factors, such as subtle gender expectations that emerge later on during high school and college.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Ph.D. Janet Hyde and her colleagues analyzed math test scores from 7 million students, grades two through 11. They found no difference in performance between genders.
3. Declining interest in STEM
When and why do girls eventually lose interest in pursuing a STEM career?
An interesting study from 2010 suggested a girl’s confidence in math abilities may be influenced by their female elementary school teachers. The study revealed 90% of elementary school teachers were female, and that those who graduated with a degree in elementary education had higher levels of math anxiety compared with other areas of study.
At the beginning of the year, the study showed no correlation between teacher math anxiety and girl achievement. By the end of the year, however, teachers with strong math anxiety showed girl’s math achievement lower than that of boys.
The study suggested math anxiety may contribute to an unpleasant math response and that this disparity continues into high school.
An interest in STEM careers remains steady for boys throughout high school (39.5% for first-year students compared to 39.7% for seniors). For girls, interest is much lower level from the beginning and declines during high school (15.7% for first-year students compared to 12.7% for seniors).
Researchers at Cornell found 26% of graduating male seniors planned to enter STEM or Biomed occupations, compared with 13% of girls.
Do humans need to fit into one specific category – either being analytical OR creative?
The earlier-referenced Technical Consultant thinks not. “You can be really good at non-technical things (I’m artistic and love to write) but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be great in a STEM field.
In fact, you may realize you’re a perfect fit and a career in STEM gives you the chance to pursue a thousand things that interest you!”
“I think womxn are still walking into rooms and offices where they are the minority, but that the narrative is changing,” Jessica Watson, the Creative Director/CEO of Points North Studio says.
“Groups like Baltimore Womxn in Tech are providing a community to support womxn in these roles. Companies are doing the work to create inclusive environments and cultures. From my perspective, even though change happens slowly, change is happening.”
4. A lack of role models for women in STEM
If you cannot see it, you cannot be it.
This shortage of female role models in STEM is a vicious cycle that for many reinforce the perception that STEM careers are generally not for women.
Role models are important because they are proof of our dreams and vision. In fact, a CWJobs survey of 2,001 STEM workers showed 73% of women in STEM are inspired by same-gender role models.
Decades ago, readily available examples of women in STEM roles in TV and books were limited. A study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found male STEM characters outnumber female ones by 62.9% to 37.1%.
Since then, there’s been an intentional shift to portray more women in these roles.
Dr. Scully from the X Files is believed to have inspired young women to pursue STEM careers (aka “The Scully Effect”).
Doc McStuffins, Grey’s Anatomy and Amy Fowler from the TV show Big Bang Theory are a few others.
Children’s books, like the Questioneer series and the Brad Meltzer “I am” biographies portraying successful women are examples of more recent stories that have encouraged interest in science and tech.
In 2015, the #ILooklikeanengineer social media campaign made waves. The movement was initiated by Isis Wenger, an engineer from OneLogin, to increase awareness of gender discrimination in engineering.
Parents as role models can serve as a direct resource for educating their children
In fact, Digital Analytic leader Neena Graham affirmed that family guided her interest in pursuing a career in tech.
Dr. Lara Langdon, a Director of Data Science, credits her upbringing and school as factors that influenced her career path to tech. “Both my parents were civil engineers, and I was fortunate to be in a school that never differentiated in gender ability for STEM fields. In fact, most of the best students in those subjects were girls.
I was also lucky later in college to have supportive professors who saw my abilities and talents in mathematics and who encouraged me to go to graduate school and pursue my passion.”
Teachers and professors can play a role in encouraging women to pursue a career in STEM
Cory Koedel and Diyi Li of the University of Missouri Columbia analyzed data from 40 public universities and found that women account for just 18.1-31.1% of faculty in STEM fields (as opposed to 47–53% of faculty in non-STEM fields). This lack of representation may pose a challenge to women looking to be part of an inclusive learning environment.
“When I was teaching mathematics at the undergraduate level, I saw many female students come to my class with a lack of confidence in their abilities to do the math,” Dr. Langdon recalled about her experience as a professor. “My mission as a professor was to show they can succeed. Many times, they turned out to be my best students.”
Many women encounter the pressure to choose between their career and their family.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many women departed the full-time workforce citing the need to prioritize childcare and family needs.
Sociologists from the University of Michigan analyzed data of 841 scientists who became new parents between 2003 and 2006.
By the end of the study period, 23% of men and 43% of women who had become parents had left full-time STEM employment. They either went part-time, switched to non-STEM careers or left the workforce altogether.
6. Access to entrepreneurship funds
The underrepresentation of women building and leading innovative startups is startling.
Progress was seen, however, in 2021. Startups with a woman founder raised $25 billion in the first half of 2021—greater than the amount raised by women any full year prior – and data shows an increase in the number of women capturing later stage deals.
While the strides in 2021 are indeed good news, the large disparity in women accessing early-stage funds cannot be overlooked.
The total and average deal value for companies with all-female founders has grown but continues to lag behind mixed-gender (11.7%) and all-male cofounders (86%).
Who has a seat at the table?
According to Female Funders, the female representation of partners in North American Venture Capital firms accounts stands as follows, and more women in these positions could help eliminate unconscious bias:
- 36% are venture analysts
- 13% are partners
- 9% are managing partners
7. Diversity in leadership
In a 2018 LiveSurvey study, just 8.3% of 1000 respondents could name a female tech leader. Half of that 8% cited Siri. In the tech industry, fewer leadership roles are held by women—with just 19% holding roles as Tech Sr. Vice Presidents and 15% as CEOs.
Resources for women interested in STEM careers
Where do we go from here?
According to the Bureau of Labor, STEM career employment will increase 10.5% from 2020 to 2030. What are some ways to but how can we get girls and women exposed, excited and empowered to pursue a career in STEM?
Below are several ideas identified as beneficial by accomplished STEM professionals:
- Back in high school, Dr. Langdon praised Khan Academy as a site that “presented basic chemistry, physics and calculus concepts in an interesting and visual way.”
- A digital marketing specialist credits LinkedIn Learning, Codecademy, copywriting and HubSpot courses with learning the technical skills needed to make a career pivot during the pandemic.
- Jessica Watson suggested following WonderWomenTech on social, UpSurge Baltimore, Lesbians Who Tech, and Backstage Capital.
To encourage more women to pursue technical careers, many immersive boot camps and nonprofits are offering scholarships, discounts, and grants to women who enrol.
This list only scratches the surface of the communities, accelerators, scholarships, and initiatives established to build a more gender-inclusive workforce and opportunity for females in STEM.
Elementary/ Middle School
National Girls Collaborative The Connectory features K-12 STEAM opportunities
Girls Who Code Clubs for 3rd-12th grade and summer programs
EngineerGirl Informational website to provide inf on opportunities in engineering
Stem for Her DC-based nonprofit offering clubs and afterschool groups
Code.org Classes to learn how to code
GirlStart Education programs for K-12 girls to foster STEM skills development
Stem From the Start Educational Video for Prek-2
Exploratorium Activities and interactive games in Science and Tech (Spanish options too)
Idtech Virtual Tech Camps ranging from Minecraft Game Design to Chess Strategy
Know it All, STEM Videos created by professionals in different STEM careers offering insights about a specific career path
Lego League Robotics Club Global robotics program for ages 4-16
Techbridge Girls Nonprofit providing after-school and professional development to low-income communities
Code Girls United will be offering a free year-long coding program for girls in grades 4-8
New York Institute of Technology free 6-week program for Python Programming for Women and Single Parents
Thinkful offers $600 or $1200 to self-identifying women for courses
BrainStation offers partial tuition for veterans and women
The Grace Hopper Program at Fullstack Academy is a tuition-free program (payment due when grad lands a job) for female identifying (including non-binary) applicants
Latinas in STEM offers K-12, college scholarships and mentorships to Latina students
Black Girls CODE have 15 chapters in the US that offer camps, clubs, workshops and scholarship opportunities.
Heinlein Society offers 3k scholarship for female undergrad majoring in math, engineering, or biological or physical sciences
The Science Ambassador Scholarship, funded by Cards Against Humanity, A “full-ride” scholarship is awarded to the female STEM student who creates a winning 3-minute YouTube video on the STEM subject of her choosing
Iise 4k scholarship for female students who are studying industrial engineering
Palantir Women in Engineering 10 recipients are awarded 7k in scholarship and invited to a virtual development workshop.
American Airlines/Envoy awards one $5,000 scholarship to a student pursuing a degree in aeronautical, electrical, or mechanical engineering
Society of Women in Engineering disbursed nearly 260 new and renewed scholarships in 2020 valued at more than $1M
Lesbians Who Tech LGBTQ Women, Non-Binary and Trans Individuals in and Around Tech
Baltimore Women in Tech Baltimore women in Tech
Get Cities Gender Equality in Tech
Women in Data Nonprofit to increase diversity in data science and analytics
Women Who Code Community, Services for women pursuing tech careers, including coding resources and job boards
Lean In Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit offers peer groups, education materials, and diversity training for companies
https://anitab.org/ Nonprofit that recruits, retains, and employs women in tech
AWIS Global network that provides educational programs, career resources, scholarships, networking and leadership opportunities for members
Women in Stem Mentorships Connecting STEM women students with STEM women professionals as mentors and role models
Women in Stem Connecting University Students with High School Students
Million Women Mentors Network to encourage girls to worldwide to pursue a STEM career
Accelerators for startups
All Raise A nonprofit on a mission to accelerate the success of female founders and funders to build a more prosperous equitable future.
Women in VC A global community for women in venture capital
Graham Walker Accelerator for female and non-binary founders. Includes pitch practicing and relationship building with investors
Stella Labs Female business accelerator based out of San Diego
Google Women Founder Google has a 10-week program for Seed to Series A tech start-ups
Advice for women exploring and beginning careers in STEM
If you are contemplating a career path or transition into STEM, below are a few words of advice from professional women who have navigated the industry:
- A digital marketing professional found support through online resources and networking: “Pivoting into STEM can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. I found that blogging, posting on social and doing freelance work for clients helped build up my experience. That’s when I started getting noticed by recruiters.”
- Identify your tribe. Neena advises to “find people you feel comfortable asking your questions to.” Jessica urges women to “find your network and connect with them often. Find mentors (and it doesn’t have to be a formal mentor relationship) where you can gain advice and learn from their experience.”
- Persevere. Idalia Anderson, a tech sales manager, advocates to not “let people tell you no. Know you deserve a seat at the table.” The technical consultant added, “You will never know until you try. Go in fearlessly.”
- Adopt a positive mindset. Laura, a retired chemist, touts, “You are not an imposter. You are as capable as anyone else. Dr. Langdon recommends, “You need to be self-aware and confident in your abilities, and not let the environment get you down.”
About the author
Kelli is a self-proclaimed scrappy digital marketing & tech Recruiter, who connects companies with passionate & ambitious talent.
She partners with companies to hire digital marketing & technology talent. If you are interested in working with Kelli, you can find her on LinkedIn or contact her through email.