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The lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is nothing new, but in the last decade President Obama has reignited the conversation, and taken several steps while in office to address the gender gap in STEM fields. Many other leaders and tech entrepreneurs have also stepped up to help diversify the industry. Yet despite these recent initiatives, women are still heavily underrepresented. Learn more about women in STEM, including what types of resources are available to help budding female STEM professionals break barriers.

Where Are the Women?

Data from the White House found that women and minorities account for 70 percent of all college students, but only 45 percent of students in STEM majors. Additionally, although women account for half of the national workforce and earn a greater percentage of bachelor’s and graduate degrees than men, graduation data from the National Science Foundation found women only accounted for 18.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science, 19.1 percent in physics, and 19.2 percent in engineering in 2015. The gender gap is particularly noticeable in engineering, where female students have made minimal gains during the past twenty years.

Why are there so few women in STEM degree programs and jobs? The problem is a convergence of multiple contributing factors, including:

  • Discrimination in engineering and science fields
  • Lack of female mentors
  • Ingrained stereotypes and cultural biases
  • General lack of encouragement for young girls in STEM fields
  • Unfavorable educational and professional environments

Below is a breakdown of some of the most common challenges women in STEM face, along with examples of how some institutions and organizations are trying to remedy the problem.

Challenge Potential Solutions
Gender Biases and Stereotypes The National Science Foundation recommends equality training to encourage awareness of personal biases and to highlight the importance of diversity in universities and the workplace.
Lack of Female Mentors The lack of female mentors in both academia and STEM fields is of pressing concern. Multiple mentoring and support initiatives, in both higher education and at the federal level, have been developed to help connect women in STEM to female mentors. Examples include:
Department of Energy STEM Mentoring Program
Launched in 2011, this program connects DOE scientists and engineers to female undergraduates.
WISE Program at UC Davis
The WISE Program focuses on mentorship as well as recruitment and retention of female STEM students and faculty members.
Work-Life Balance Many women take time off to care for families or need greater flexibility to balance caring for a family. Solutions are required to help keep female researchers and STEM professionals in their fields of practice. Example solutions include:
National Science Foundation’s Career-Life Balance Initiative
A 10-year initiative to create flexible environments for grant recipients, including year-long maternity leaves.
National Institutions of Health Re-Entry Programs
These programs are for scientists who must leave research for a period of time (e.g. to raise a child) and are designed to help women researchers transition back into the laboratory.
Workplace Issues: Gender Discrimination, Low Job Satisfaction, and Negative Workplace Cultures Negative workplace environments, harassment, gender biases, and similar stressors are common issues for women in male-dominated fields. Some of the top solutions proposed by researchers and groups, including the American Association of University Women, are:
  • Improved organizational leadership training
  • Implementation of policies regarding mistreatment in the workplace and laboratory
  • Proper document of mistreatment or other issues in the workplace
  • More training and education regarding stereotypes, biases, and creating a positive learning and workplace culture

The Truth About Women in STEM

The National Science Foundation notes that, since the late 1990’s, women have earned approximately half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees and 57 percent of total bachelor’s degrees in the country. Yet despite these numbers, participation in STEM employment remains limited – research from the U.S. Department of Commerce confirms that women hold less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs in America.

Lingering misconceptions and outdated stereotypes about women, gender roles, and women’s interest in science and engineering have played a major role in perpetuating the gender gap in STEM fields. Below is a closer look at common myths that come to mind when some people think about women in STEM and why each is in fact false.

Men are naturally better at math, while women are better at verbal tasks

Truth: As the Clayman Institute for Gender Research points out, research has shown there is no direct evidence that these differences are innate and/or due to gender. Rather, studies have shown that social factors are a key influencer.

Girls and women are not interested in science and engineering

Truth: It’s true; some girls and women just aren’t interested in STEM. Research from the U.S. Department of Education confirms girls do indeed start losing interest in math and science during middle school. However, a growing body of research suggests that, in some cases, this happens because exposure to STEM fields and activities decreases as girls get older. Young girls with parents, family, friends, and teachers who encouraged the exploration of STEM fields as well as participation in hands-on and extracurricular STEM activities were more likely to express an interest in these areas as young adults.

Women are less productive than their male colleagues

Truth: Productivity of women is comparable to men’s in every industry, including academia. Perceived barriers such as marriage and family are not the real issues. Instead, a lack of resources and institutional support continue to be problems.

Because they take time off to raise children, women are a bad investment

Truth: The NAS notes that, on average, women do take more time off during the early stages of their career due to caregiving responsibilities. However, over the course of a career, men are more likely to take sick time off compared to women.

STEM Programs for Young Women

Boys and girls at the K-12 level follow the same curriculum in math and science, yet according to research from the American Association of University Women, fewer women go on to major in these fields in college. The failure to produce female STEM graduates has implications at both the personal and societal levels, from economic growth to innovation, and career earnings to employment opportunities. Initiatives are underway to bring STEM programs to young girls, foster their interest in science and technology, and make education both available and accessible.

Examples of K-12 programs and initiatives for young women in STEM include:

National Math + Science Initiative

With donors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Math + Science Initiative supports a range of programs to improve student performance in STEM subjects.

Invest in Innovation Fund

Created by the U.S. Department of Education, the Invest in Innovation Fund provides grants to schools and organizations that support and provide resources for girls and women in STEM.

NASA + Girl Scouts of America Partnership

NASA and the Girl Scouts of America have partnered to create a number of programs to help girls experience hands-on STEM activities through initiatives such as Reaching for the Stars and Imagine STEM.

Career Map: STEM Degrees & Careers for Women

Take a look at some of the potential career paths for women with STEM degrees.

Engineering
Civil Engineer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 12.60%
  • $87,130
  • 8.40%
Mechanical Engineer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 8.30%
  • $87,140
  • 5.30%
Industrial Engineer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 20.20%
  • $85,110
  • 1.40%
Computer Science
Database Administrator
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 38%
  • $82,280
  • 11.10%
Computer Systems Analyst
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 34.20%
  • $87,320
  • 20.90%
Software Developer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 17.90%
  • $97,990
  • 17%
Chemistry
Materials Scientist
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 36.10%
  • $91,980
  • 3.00%
Chemical Technician
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 40%
  • $47,390
  • 1.90%
Chemical Engineer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 14.70%
  • $103,590
  • 1.80%
Mathematical Sciences
Market Research Analyst
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 58.80%
  • $68,700
  • 18.60%
Financial Analyst
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 43%
  • $92,250
  • 11.70%
Statistician
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 52.90%
  • $84,010
  • 33.80%
Computer Engineering
Computer Network Architect
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 12.10%
  • $100,710
  • 8.70%
Computer Hardware Engineer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 12.80%
  • $110,650
  • 3.10%
Applications Developer
  • % Women
  • Avg. Salary
  • Job Growth
  • 17.90%
  • $99,530
  • 19%

Data Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Evaluating Colleges

Choosing a college can be daunting for any budding STEM professional, especially for women who may want specific support and resources throughout their academic career. Not all colleges are created equal and some have instituted policies and initiatives to cultivate a more inclusive environment for female STEM students. Below is a list of questions you can ask prospective colleges, or research on your own, to help you determine if a particular environment will help you and other women in STEM succeed in the classroom and the workplace.

  • What is the overall retention and graduation rate for women in STEM at the college?
  • What is the population of students in STEM degree programs like? Is the student body primarily men or women? Does enrollment in STEM majors mirror the general student body population?
  • How many women are enrolled in the school’s STEM programs and how many women received degrees in STEM-related fields in the last 3-5 years?
  • What has the school done – and what it is currently doing – to not only recruit more women to its STEM programs but also retain them until graduation?
  • What campus resources are available to women interested in pursuing a degree in STEM and what resources are available post graduation?
  • How many women faculty are there in the school’s STEM programs? What is their academic and professional background and does it align with your interests and goals?

Financial Aid for a STEM Degree

From national initiatives driven by the White House to local, community-based organizations, public and private sectors alike are working to encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM education. A major component of supporting interest is helping to fund educational aspirations through scholarships and grants.

Women in STEM Resources

Across the country numerous associations and universities have launched a range of initiatives to encourage women to enroll in STEM majors, excel in their studies and pursue successful career paths. These resources range from mentoring programs to conferences. Below you’ll find just some of the resources currently available to women in STEM.

Campus Clubs and Initiatives

Alpha Omega Epsilon

Alpha Omega Epsilon is a national sorority for female engineers with chapters throughout the country.

American Association of University Women

A national nonprofit association, the American Association of University Women supports a range of campus-based STEM initiatives, conducts research into equity and diversity issues, and provides educational funding to students.

Association for Women in Computing

The Association for Women in Computing is a professional organization for women working in the field of computing, ranging from technical writing to systems analysis, computer programming to consulting.

Association for Women in Mathematics

The Association for Women in Mathematics is a nonprofit group that brings together members from across the country to support and help girls and women pursue education and careers in the mathematical sciences.

Association for Women in Science

The Association for Women in Science has more than 20,000 members working in STEM fields and is active is public policy, leadership development and research into current issues in STEM.

Graduate Women in Science

Graduate Woman in Science is a national organization with 20 local chapters throughout the United States. It offers a national fellowship program, membership opportunities and a variety of resources for its members.

Million Women Mentors

A STEMConnector initiative, Million Women Mentors is a nationwide project with more than 60 partners and 35 state-based leadership teams. The goal of MWM is to connect STEM mentors (both male and female) to aspiring women in STEM fields across the country.

Phi Sigma Rho

Phi Sigma Rho is a national social sorority with member chapters at colleges throughout the country that supports women in engineering and engineering technology majors.

Women in STEM Society

At BYU-Idaho, students can join the Women in STEM Society, an organization offering activities, networking events, service projects, and study groups.

Women In STEM Resources

Developed at Harvard University, Women in STEM Resources is a collection of peer-reviewed journals, blogs and research articles for those interested in studying and learning more about the challenges women face in science and related fields.

Other Resources

Center for STEM Education for Girls

Created by the Harpeth Hall School, the center provides STEM education opportunities to girls across the country.

Engineer Girl

Engineer Girl is a website developed by the National Academy of Engineering that includes a wealth of resources designed to build girls’ interest in engineering—from interviews to fun facts about careers.

GirlStart

GirlStart is a nation-wide program aimed at increasing girls’ interest in STEM through a variety of educational initiatives, including after-school programs and summer camps.

National Girls Collaborative Project

The National Girls Collaborative Project works to share resources and develop the capacity of STEM-programs serving girls across the country.

Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code is a national movement designed to introduce girls to computer science and provide them with mentorship and unique training programs in web design, mobile development and robotics.

Women@NASA

Launched in 2009, Women@NASA is a collection of videos and essays from women who work at NASA, serving as a point of inspiration for girls and young women interested in science and technology.

National Math + Science Initiative

The result of a public-private partnership, the National Math + Science Initiative was created to improve the performance of students in STEM subjects through a variety of initiatives, including the College Readiness Program and Laying the Foundation Program.

Insight and Advice from Women in STEM

What made you want to pursue a STEM degree/career?

When I was a junior in high school, I gave a class presentation as Neil Armstrong. I did a lot of research on the Gemini and Apollo programs and found myself getting more and more excited about the idea of a career in aerospace. This was right around the time that my classmates and I were beginning to think about which universities and programs to apply to, so I did some more research on how people like Neil Armstrong got their start. I ended up applying to the University of Southern California’s Astronautical Engineering program, from which I graduated in December 2014.

How can prospective college students, particularly young women, prepare for a STEM education/career in high school? 

I encourage students to take calculus or physics classes at a local community college, explore STEM-related extracurricular activities, participate in summer science-based camps and activities, attend conferences, compete in science fairs—anything that will help you gain knowledge and skills in areas that you are passionate about.

Also, remember that many STEM jobs are as much about the ability to communicate knowledge and ideas as they are about being good at a certain subject. Focus on activities that develop your teamwork, communication (both verbal and written) and leadership skills, not just on hard science.

What are some of the frustrations/challenges?

Every now and then, I’ll get a comment that my male counterparts would never get—I’ve been called “dear” and “darling,” and recently a technician insisted on carrying a bucket of water across the factory for me because “how would it look if I let you carry that yourself.” These are small things, mostly harmless things, and I have to learn when to call them out, and when to brush them off. 

Who have been your role models?

My greatest role model, Kelley Ristau, was my mentor at my last job. Kelley is a senior mechanical test engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope, one of the coolest jobs an aerospace engineer could have. Another of my role models is Dr. Anita Sengupta, who led the team of JPL engineers that developed the supersonic parachute to deliver the Curiosity rover to Mars.

What advice do you have?

STEM fields are not gender-specific. Anybody who has a passion for a subject—and the drive to back up that passion—will be successful in STEM. That being said, it’s not all about knowledge, hard facts, and equations; STEM fields are deeply rooted in problem solving, communication, and teamwork.

What made you want to pursue an engineering career?

I was always drawn to technology. As a child I was constantly playing with Legos, taking my broken electronics apart to examine the insides, and programming the VCR. I was a child of the 80’s / 90’s and the first time I saw a computer was in 1993, during my senior year of high school. When I found programming books in my Geometry teacher’s closet, I begged him to teach me. I always thought in black and white, 1’s and 0’s so programming felt second nature for me.

Why did you choose Rose-Hulman? What were some of the major obstacles you faced during your education there?

At first, I went to Rose-Hulman simply because I did something bad at school, and my “punishment” was joining the Math team (because they needed a girl). The campus was gorgeous! I had never encountered such a place, growing up in a small farm town. And… get this… they had LEGOS on the brochure! I remember coming home and telling my mother that I wanted to go to school there and being heartbroken that the college was all male.

Luckily, they announced (during my junior year in high school) they would go co-ed in four years. I called them and said, “I’ll be attending Rose in 4 years! I need to come in to talk to admissions about what courses to take so that everything will transfer.” Four years later, I was one of the first women to attend the school and the second to graduate.

In terms of challenges, some of the students and teachers didn’t seem to think women belonged there. The teachers hid it well, but you could tell which ones were products of old thought. Some of the male students did not hide it well, but when faced with conflict, I just pointed out to them that I was making better grades than them across the board.

What are some of the frustrations and challenges you’ve faced as a woman working in a STEM field and what have you learned from those challenges?

I faced the same challenges as any women engineer. I had to learn to deal with gender bias about my intelligence, learn to deal with creepy guys, but perhaps the oddest challenge is when people are overly impressed with my work because they assumed I couldn’t do it.

I’ve learned that certain fields are less gender bias than others. For example, software engineers don’t really care that I’m a woman. But the factory environment was terrible. I’ve learned that everyone has challenges to face in the workforce; mine are just different, not worse. I’ve learned that everyone has confidence issues in some form, and keeping my chin up is something I focus on every day because of that. And (later in my career), I’ve learned that surrounding myself with a network of great women professionals is the most energizing and confirming thing I could do for myself.

Who have been your role models?

I have a cherished mentor from Rose-Hulman, Tom Mason. He taught Entrepreneurship courses at Rose and I took both the undergrad and graduate versions. He’s a successful entrepreneur himself and a passionate mentor. I leave every conversation with him ready to conquer the world. He switched from mentor to role model when I realized that it was my responsibility to be that cheerleader for others. It was then that I started getting involved as a mentor myself.

I also have many women from Women & Hi Tech that I consider role models. Deborah Pollack-Milgate (Barnes & Thornberg partner), Tonya Hanshew (CEO Agency 360), Rhonda Winter (former CIO Indianapolis Motor Speedway), and Deb Hallberg (Barnes & Thornburg – another great cheerleader and all around super connected lady), to name a few.

What advice do you have for other women considering a degree or working in a STEM field?

Be persistent, confident, and understand that your basic chemistry makes it difficult for you to be these two things, so surround yourself with great mentors and cheerleaders that can help you keep your chin up.

Don’t be martyr. The men in this field have challenges too. Everyone must understand and overcome these challenges in their own way.

Don’t obsess over the obstacles you encounter. Instead, view them as challenges and deal with them in a mature way. You’ll be wiser when it comes time to tackle the next one.

Could you talk a little bit about your involvement in fostering the Women in STEM movement? Why is it so important?

I actually resisted joining women’s groups in my early years because I wanted to be involved in a group because I was interested in the topic, not because I was a girl. After my mentor, Tom Mason, introduced me to Women & Hi Tech, I realized that I didn’t have to go it alone. That there were so many women supporting women in the lonely world of STEM! I immediately joined the board for Women & Hi Tech and sought to improve their communication because I couldn’t believe I had gone so many years not knowing about them. With my help, W&HT has grown widely in the last six years and we now have the resources to do great things like award annual scholarships, throw galas honoring women in tech in the Indy area (Leading Light Awards), and partner with NCWIT to help fund and support their annual Aspiration in Computing Awards here in Indiana. Lastly, I attach myself to every nerdy girl I see walk through my new workplace, Eleven Fifty, and make certain they know that I’m a cheerleader for their success.

Breaking Barriers: Leading the Way for Other Women in STEM

Did you know a woman, Vera Rubin, was first to discover evidence for dark matter? That a woman, Melissa Franklin, led research proving the existence of the top quark? These two women are only two examples on the long list of women who have made and continue to make groundbreaking contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Below is a brief list of women who pushed to make an impact in the STEM world, even in the face of challenging barriers.

Mae Jemison First African American woman in space

Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to participate in a space mission in 1992. Between September 12 – 20, Jemison served as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. A physician, Jemison has served as a professor at both Dartmouth College and Cornell University.

Maryam Mirzakhani First woman (and individual of Iranian descent) to win Fields Medal

Born in Tehran, Mirzakhani earned her doctorate from Harvard University and has served as a professor at Princeton and Stanford University. Mirzakhani became the first woman to receive the Fields Metal in 2014 for her work in geometry. This prestigious award is commonly known as the “Nobel Prize” of mathematics.

Elinor Ostrom First woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics

An American political economist, Ostrom was a faculty member at Indiana University and Arizona State University until she passed in 2012. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her research into shared resources, which had major ramifications for economics and political scientists.

Frances Elizabeth Allen First woman to win the A.M. Turing Award

Allen spent 45 years as a researcher at IBM, joining the company in 1957 and retiring in 2002. Her work spanned cutting-edge programming languages and she was responsible for designing one the world’s first supercomputers called “Stretch”. She was the first woman to earn the A.M. Turing Award for her contributions to the theory of optimizing compiler techniques.

Barbara McClintock First female winner of the National Medal of Science

An American geneticist, McClintock earned her PhD from Cornell in 1927 and served as a researcher at the University of Missouri and the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Genetics. She was the first woman to win the National Medal of Science and was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology for her work in genetics.

Rosalind Franklin Chemist who helped discover the molecular structures of DNA

Franklin graduated from Cambridge University in 1945 with a PhD in Physical Chemistry. At King’s College in London, Franklin’s research into DNA and her work on X-ray photographs of DNA helped unlock its structure. She died of cancer at the age of 37 in 1958.

Dale Emeagwali Microbiologist and winner of Scientist of the Year from National Technical Society

Emeagwali is a renowned microbiologist who has made major contributions to medical science. She has advocated for minorities in science since earning her PhD in Microbiology from Georgetown in 1981. She was named Scientist of the Year in 1996 by the National Technical Society for her work in cancer research.

Marcia McNutt Geophysicist and first female director of United States Geological Survey

McNutt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2009 as the Director of the United States Geological Survey—the first woman to ever hold the post. She is also the first woman to serve as editor of the journal Science and is the current president-elect of the National Academy of Science. She has served as the CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and as a professor at both Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Updated: July 28, 2017