How Do We Get More Women Into The Sciences?

Is it possible that after a decade of talking about getting more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, they’re actually losing ground in some of these professions?

Women’s share of STEM jobs has remained constant at about 24 percent over the past decade even as more college-educated women have entered the workforce, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study that concluded women are “vastly underrepresented” in these fields.

The study reported U.S. Census Bureau numbers reflecting that women’s representation in the physical and life sciences workforce rose from 36 to 40 percent from 2000 to 2009. But, during the same period, females went from 30 percent of the computer science and math workforce to 27 percent.

Could such a retreat be the result of the economic downturn? Unlikely, since while the computer science and math fields shed around 11,000 women in the decade, it gained more than 330,000 men. Meanwhile, a small 1 percent bump in women’s representation in engineering jobs–from 13 to 14 percent–was as much a result of the field losing more than 100,000 men between 2000 and 2009 as it was of gaining 12,000 women.

“We’re actually losing women in the mid-level roles within the computer science and engineering industries,” says Jerri Barrett, vice president of marketing at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a nonprofit that seeks to advance the role of women in STEM fields. “There’s a problem in the pipeline that goes all the way from kindergarten up to senior-management level.”

And though women in STEM jobs earn a third more than women in other fields, those who earn undergraduate STEM degrees are more likely to take jobs in education or healthcare than in a STEM occupation.

Someone to look up to

The problem is particularly acute at the top.

Women held only one in four STEM management roles in 2009, according to Census data.

“Women need to see role models at very senior levels,” says Barrett. “If there aren’t any, it makes all women in junior positions think they can’t get there.”

Dr. Eve Fine, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), says that a lack of female role models in engineering, math and computer science is just one of the obstacles to getting more women into these fields.

“The image of these sciences in society isn’t helpful to attracting women or minorities. They’re seen as heavily male-dominated,” Fine says. “Prevalent in these fields is the perception that you must devote yourself single-mindedly to the work and that is something that women interested in starting a family don’t want.”

Barrett says the Anita Borg Institute advocates for companies to take a hard look at their work culture and incorporate more telecommuting and other modern labor practices. Making those changes, she says, can make technical fields more attractive.

“Studies show that if an employer interviews qualified women, 50 percent of the time they will hire women. So you’ve got to have more female candidates in the pool,” Barrett says. “To attract more females, these companies have to move away from the hero culture of technology—the feeling of ‘I’m going to work night and day and sleep under my desk.’”

Several major employers get it, she says, and cites American Express, IBM and Lockheed Martin for hiring more women and opening avenues for them to rise to higher management levels. Another high-tech company, GE, which sponsors this magazine, employs more than 100,000 women and founded a women’s network in 1997. These efforts focus on attracting and retaining talent, as well as cultivating women to take on leadership roles.

Wanted: A broad movement

Wiseli’s Fine says women have always been involved in the sciences. Before the study of the natural world became institutionalized in academies and universities, male family members—husbands, fathers or brothers—often trained their female relatives in the sciences. For hundreds of years, women have made names for themselves in botany, horticulture, paleontology, healthcare and astronomy and have achieved some parity in these fields.

But engineering, computer science and math degree programs and professions still lag behind. Fine says what those fields need is a broad social movement, like the women’s health movement in the 1970s that saw an upsurge in female doctors and led to major improvements in women’s health.

“There hasn’t been a broad social movement in these fields to break through to women,” Fine says. “These fields partly suffer a PR problem and partly an education problem. Because of this, women aren’t encouraged into them, and bias and discrimination, though subtle, is still there.”


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