Encouraging Women in STEM
Resources, Scholarships, and Expert Advice for Support
The lack of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is nothing new, but federal efforts in the last decade have reignited the conversation and addressed the gender gap in STEM fields. Many business 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 has found that women make up more than 50% of all college students but less than 10% 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, past graduation data from the National Science Foundation found that women accounted for less than 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science, physics, and engineering. 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: Gender Biases and Stereotypes
Potential Solution: 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.
Challenge: Lack of Female Mentors
Potential Solution: 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:
Challenge: Work-Life Balance
Potential Solution: 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 — An 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.
Challenge: Workplace Issues - Gender Discrimination, Low Job Satisfaction, and Negative Workplace Culture
Potential Solution: 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 1990s, 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: To date, 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 has confirmed that 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 has noted that, on average, women do take more time off during the early stages of their careers 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 past 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
Career Map: STEM Degrees & Careers for Women
Computer Systems Analyst
Market Research Analyst
Computer Network Architect
Computer Hardware Engineer
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? 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 in 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.
- 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?
- What made you want to pursue an engineering career?
- How can prospective college students, particularly young women, prepare for a STEM education/career in high school?
- Why did you choose Rose-Hulman? What were some of the major obstacles you faced during your education there?
- What are some of the frustrations/challenges?
- 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?
- Who have been your role models?
- What advice do you have?
- Who have been your role models?
- What advice do you have for other women considering a degree or working in a STEM field?
- Could you talk a little bit about your involvement in fostering the Women in STEM movement? Why is it so important?
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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.
First African American woman in space
Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to participate in a space mission in 1992, serving as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. A physician, Jemison has served as a professor at both Dartmouth College and Cornell University.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of 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.
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.
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