While STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields have traditionally been thought of as male-dominated, that's not the case anymore. In recent years, it has become apparent that more representation of women and other minority groups is vital - not only to fill necessary roles within these industries but to bring new perspectives and experiences.
History of women in STEM
Women have long been making strides in the STEM industry, unfortunately less credited. They've been mostly excluded from STEM fields for centuries due to societal barriers but there have been a few outliers, such as Marie Curie, a pioneer in the industry. According to the Nobel Foundation, in the early 1900s, she was a professor of general physics at Sorbonne University in Paris. She was the first woman to hold the position, achieve her Doctor of Science degree in 1903 and earn two Nobel Prizes.
Curie was an anomaly, however. In the mid to late 1900s, women finally began to break into these fields, but still faced discrimination and limited opportunities.
During the 1970s, women made up a low 38% of the workforce and accounted for only 8% of STEM workers in the field, according to the US Census Bureau. In recent years these numbers have increased, in 2019, women made up 37% of the STEM industry. This is an area that needs continual focus and improvement.
"I'm happy that the numbers continue to increase for women, but the pace is still very slow," said Dr. Denise Kinsey, a technical program facilitator in cyber security at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). "It can be daunting to consider a new field, especially when no one you know is in it and there are few representatives that look like you."
While efforts have been made to include women in the industry more, to create safe spaces for them and treat them as equals in their work, there is still a gender gap to be improved upon.
"We have made strides towards a more inclusive and welcoming norm related to underrepresented minorities in STEM, but discriminatory gender stereotypes still exist," said Dr. Anat Eshed, assistant vice president of strategy, architecture, and performance at SNHU. "I believe that it is only with empowering and celebrating the brilliant contribution of minorities, such as women in STEM, we can slowly change the image that 'STEM is for men.'"
What is the gender gap in STEM?
The gender gap in STEM represents the unequal representation between men and women in the workforce. It often starts long before entering the field usually it begins in the classroom.
Dr. Rebecca Baker, vice president of product design and research at SNHU, began her education in STEM in physics and said starting was intimidating.
"Often, I was the only female in classes or meetings, and it could be difficult to ensure that my voice was heard," she said.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), at the college level, only 21% of engineering majors are women. There is an even smaller representation of women in computer science majors at just 19%.
The gender gap continues in the field given women are often paid much less than men in the same area of work. For example, Pew Research Center stated that in 2019 women in STEM-related jobs with a median earning of around $66,000 were making only about 74% of what men were earning at approximately $90,000. Additionally, women of color make even less, with a median salary of about $61,000 per year.
Not seeing themselves represented in these majors and industries can steer young girls away from these fields. Leading to more growth in the gender gap.
"We need better representation of women in STEM to ensure that these fields are moving forward with a sufficiently diverse perspective, challenging norms, and making new discoveries," said Kinsey.
Having more women in the industry, who are well-represented, listened to, and taken seriously is essential to close the gap quickly and creating a more inclusive and supportive culture in these fields.
"It gives me a sense of pride to walk into a room and see another woman leader paving the way for gender equality," said Dr. Albanie Bolton, an adjunct professor in computer science and information technology programs at SNHU. "The importance goes beyond what we see daily and filters back into what we want our children or grandchildren to see in their futures. Fostering young ladies at an early age will create the foundation to encourage a future in STEM."
Why are women important in STEM?
As technology advances each year, there is more need for a diverse and inclusive community to keep up with the industry's trajectory.
"We must remember that gender equality in the STEM arena opens the door for new viewpoints beyond the male perspective," said Bolton. "Moreover, it is imperative to see women in STEM because it is essential for the future of innovation. With many jobs and inventions catered to men, women are needed to ensure that all the needs of society are represented."
A more diverse workforce brings more innovative ideas to the forefront. In addition, having women in STEM opens up more opportunities for different perspectives and approaches, whether in creating something new or problem-solving a current issue.
STEM covers various fields that, in one way or another, impacts people's lives directly, and having people from all walks of life builds a more substantial pool of talent and meets the demands of an essential and growing line of work.
"STEM touches so many areas of our lives, and I would challenge that my areas of IT and cybersecurity touch everything," said Kinsey. "If we are to be successful, we need to see the world and the problems the way others see them so that when we formulate solutions, we have considered the ramifications of those and ensured we have fixed the problem instead of simply 'doing something.' Without the necessary voices in the solution process, we can actually make things worse for some of those populations."
Along with these ideas, job growth in computing and engineering roles are expected to exponentially grow compared to other fields, so it is also important to have more women in STEM from an economic and social standpoint as well, says Eshed.
"From an economical perspective, there are more STEM positions than men can fill, so we need women in STEM," she said. "From a social perspective, jobs in STEM mean financial independence, which is an empowering force for women's sustainable ability to have the freedom to make personal life decisions."
The presence and participation of women in the STEM field are essential for progress in the industry, and while there have been changes made from when Marie Curie was making waves, there is still much work to be done.
"Innovations are driven by perspectives, and leaving women out of STEM, we miss precious opportunities to advance discovery," said Eshed.
Alexa Gustavsen '21 is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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