Why STEM Needs Women

iStock_000013326657XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

This week the US Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration published a new report [PDF] on women in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) fields. And the report included some good news – the STEM wage gap is smaller than in other fields.

But, let’s not forget that the gap is still there.

According to the report, even after controlling for education, age, and other factors, women earn less than men. It says, “For every dollar earned by a man in STEM, a woman earns 14 cents (or 14 percent) less, smaller than the 21 percent gender wage gap in non-STEM occupations, but a clear gender disparity nonetheless.”

The wage gap is only one problem highlighted in the report, which should serve as a clarion call to educators, employers, and the media that it’s time to encourage more women to enter STEM, and stay there. Here’s why.

Fewer Women in STEM

On average, individuals working in STEM earned significantly more than similarly qualified individuals in other fields. The report says, “Our analysis shows that, all else being equal, women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than their female peers in other jobs, while the STEM premium for men is 25 percent.”

But, as expected, there were significantly fewer women than men in these high-paying jobs.

According to the report, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs – much smaller than the percentage of jobs held by women overall (48 percent). This percentage has remained consistent for the past decade. Additionally, even though the number of women earning degrees has risen, the number of STEM degrees has stayed the same. Despite the rising importance of STEM careers in our society, the majority of women haven’t been interested or haven’t felt welcome there.

Staying Competitive

The lack of women in STEM is alarming on two fronts, according to the report. First of all, the issue is one of economic competitiveness. STEM jobs are expected to drive the global economy for the decades to come. If the field remains unappealing to some of our best and brightest, the US economy is at a disadvantage.

Acting Secretary of Commerce Dr. Rebecca Blank believes the lack of women in STEM is harming the US’s ability to compete in the global innovation marketplace. She said, “Closing the gender gap in STEM degrees will boost the number of Americans in STEM jobs, and that will enhance U.S. innovation and sharpen our global competitiveness.”

We should try harder to encourage girls and young women to enter the field, said Dr. Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation. “The data in this new report speak for themselves – loud and clear. But so does the research about what is needed to engage girls in STEM learning.”

She added, “Girls prefer creative, collaborative learning on open-ended projects that help improve the human condition.” Making the connection between STEM and society at large may be the best way to engage them early on.

Breaking the Cycle

The second issue is tougher. According to the report, there are a number of reasons women may be avoiding the field. It says:

“These may include different choices men and women typically make in response to incentives in STEM education and STEM employment – for example, STEM career paths may be less accommodating to people cycling in and out of the work-force to raise a family – or it may be because there are relatively few female STEM role models. Perhaps strong gender stereotypes discourage women from pursuing STEM education and STEM jobs.”

The dearth of women in STEM acts as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Work/life issues, a lack of role models, and a negative perception of the field are all issues that could potentially be solved by getting more women there. But because there are fewer women to look to for support, guidance, and inspiration, fewer women join the industry and stay there.

At this point, the report shows that talented women are missing from STEM – yet the benefits of gender diversity to employers have been well documented. STEM educators should do more to reach out to young women, and employers in the field should work harder to attract and retain more talented women. Working together to change negative perceptions of the industry, we can help break the cycle that keeps women out of STEM.

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