Women in STEM Careers: What you should know

New study on women in STEM careers offers some surprising findings and takeaways on the current state of women in science, technology, engineering, and math intensive industries.

NSF (National Science Foundation) Building in Arlington, Virginia. NSF is the key Federal agency supporting fundamental research in non-medical areas of science and technology. (Image via Wikipedia entry on NSF, U.S. government photo in public domain)

WASHINGTON, December 12, 2016 — Women in STEM careers are making amazing strides in these fields. But a new study offers surprising findings and takeaways of the current state of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math industries. Most importantly, the study gets to the root of the problem by exploring why more women still aren’t working in STEM jobs today.

Published in Social Science Research by Cornell University professor of policy analysis and management Sharon Sassler and co-authors Jennifer Glass, Yael Levitte, and Katherine M. Michelmore, “The Missing Women in STEM?” found among other things that acting more like a man didn’t improve a woman’s chances of getting a job in a STEM field.

Based on data going back to 1979, the study involved approximately 500 men and women who eventually earned STEM degrees, following them from the time they were teenagers just embarking on career preparation. While the difficulty of involving women in STEM fields is not exactly a new issue, to date, not much research had previously been conducted on the pipeline for women newly entering the field and the difficulty of making the transition from school to a place in the STEM workforce.

After looking at women who earned STEM degrees over the past few decades, Sassler found that in the 1970s through the 1990s, many women pursuing STEM careers believed that if they followed a traditionally male career pattern by delaying marriage and limiting the number of children they had after marriage, they could focus more exclusively on work and have similar career opportunities as men.

However, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Within two years of graduating from college with a STEM degree, 53 percent of the men in the study were employed in a related job, compared to just 41 percent of the women.

According to Sassler, the flawed way of thinking and career approach common to women holding STEM degrees ended up hurting women by preventing them from achieving a better balance in their lives. “These women have the characteristics of the ideal worker,” Sassler notes, also observing

“They expect to have few family distractions and work in STEM both within five years and at midlife. They really have strong aspirations. But they were no more likely to enter STEM jobs than women who anticipated marrying young and having two or more children.”

In addition to this aspirational mismatch, numerous additional factors may contribute to the STEM employment gap for women, including employer bias and and the under-representation of women in STEM majors. As an engineer might observe, it is intuitively obvious that if women aren’t actually earning STEM degrees, it considerably more difficult for them to secure STEM jobs when competing against those who hold the appropriate credentials.

Image Source: Pixabay. CC 0.0 license.
Image Source: Pixabay. CC 0.0 license.

Backing up this observation, nearly 33 percent of the men in the study earned a STEM degree, compared to just 15 percent of the women. Of STEM majors, men were more likely to pursue a career in computer science or engineering, which in and of itself provides a smoother path to STEM jobs. At the same time, the women in the study more frequently majored in life sciences, an area that doesn’t naturally lead to a post-graduate STEM job.

Obviously, one way to increase the number of women in STEM job fields is to encourage more of them to pursue STEM degree programs in college. But there are other alternatives. A growing number of related educational programs could potentially provide women with the basic, essential skills they need to compete for STEM jobs without the requirement of a college degree in the field.

Community colleges and a variety of other organizations, for example, offer medical billing and coding classes online as well as ways to earn Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification. Less traditional options such as these could potentially allow women the opportunity to acquire the skills and training they need to be successful in the STEM space and could possible help close the gender employment gap in these fields.

The authors of the study noted that the persistent STEM employment gap also could prove to be a self-perpetuating problem. Women currently working in STEM jobs can act as mentors and examples to future female STEM professionals. But if enough women aren’t in STEM professions to begin with, it will be harder for young women currently in school to find female mentors. Making things even more problematic, women frequently don’t play as large a role in the recruiting and hiring processes as men.

In the social arena, the researchers also found that men working in STEM positions were more likely to hold traditional views of gender roles, regarding women as being primarily responsible for taking care of the children and the household. The prevalence of this line of thinking suggests that at least some women who are aware of it could could choose to steer away from positions in STEM industries because the companies involved simply weren’t progressive enough.

The STEM industries represent rapidly growing fields that will play a major role in the future growth of the U.S. and world economies. Getting more women into STEM positions has been an ongoing struggle for a variety of reasons including those noted here. But the findings in the new Cornell study could shine more light on what women can do to succeed, grow and even thrive in the STEM field.

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