STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and science. Women in STEM refers to women in these fields. This phrase comes up to represent women in traditionally male-dominated roles. Over time, women have made great strides to enter the STEM fields and build successful STEM careers. Yet, even though women comprise about 47% of the total workforce, only 27% of STEM workers are women (as of 2019). While this figure is a considerable improvement from the past (women in STEM represented only 8% of workers in 1970), there is still much work to achieve equity and equality.
This issue doesn't just exist in the United States. Internationally, there is underrepresentation for women in STEM as well. As of 2016, women on average account for only 29.3% of those employed in scientific research and development (R&D) across the world.
Women have made progress because of increased opportunities and companies being more mindful of improving their diversity by having women at the table. There are also financial support programs to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers.
Support for Women in STEM
There are resources available for women in STEM to help them pursue their fields of interest and succeed. For instance, special scholarship programs exist to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Some examples include:
- Anna Maureen Whitney Barrow Memorial Scholarship for women in engineering and engineering technology ($8000)
- Mary Gunther Memorial Scholarship ($6500)
- Lucile B. Kaufman Women's Scholarship (amount varies)
- M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship
- Admiral Grace Murray Hopper Scholarship (three at $1500)
Yet, despite the financial support that exists, women still fall behind. That is because of the challenges we face simply for being women.
What Are Some of These Challenges?
Some challenges include feeling intimidated and lack of confidence or imposter syndrome; lack of transparency with our colleagues and lower salary; fighting pre-conceived assumptions about our lifestyles and goals; and a lack of guidance and mentorship.
Let's address each of these.
Addressing the Challenges for Women in STEM
1 – Confidence & Intimidation
Feeling like you don't belong where you are or don't deserve it can be a huge hurdle to overcome for a woman in the workplace. That is especially true for women in STEM, a typically male-dominated field. What's important to remember is that you're not alone, and feeling this way, especially at the beginning of your career, is expected.
Take time each day to remind yourself of what you do know, acknowledge things you did right, and above all, be kind to yourself as you figure things out. Beating yourself up will only make things worse.
When you're feeling overwhelmed or intimidated, one technique that helps is to break down your tasks. Focus on what immediately needs to be done, do it, and then think about the next. It makes everything more manageable, and you'll gain confidence as you go.
Understand that you know more than most. You have to channel your inner confident self and bring her to the surface.
2 – Lack of Transparency
This is a big topic nowadays, especially when considering gender equality. It affects everyone, but women are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of lack of transparency. When you're unaware of how much your colleagues are being paid, when there are hidden elements to the rewards that people may or may not get, it makes it difficult for anyone to demand what's fair.
Women, in general, are also less likely to understand their worth in the workplace, and without transparency, are also less likely to demand a fair price (or what they are truly worth).
Ask questions to as many people as you can. Understand as well what your industry standards are. What's normal for someone of your background and position? Is there a range? Are there bonuses involved?
Not all benefits at work are monetary. Sometimes you're likely to get paid in time. So, how much time off do you get? Is it paid time off? Are your weekends and evenings really your own? If you're required to complete projects or attend meetings, do you have protected time to complete them and participate?
Ask these questions of yourself and do the research. Often a lack of transparency is because people are too afraid to ask. Don't be afraid.
3 – Fighting Societal Assumptions Over Gender Roles
There are so many stories out there about companies and bosses making assumptions about how committed a woman is to her job. I've also heard stories about a lack of interest in hiring someone who's young and newly married as they may have to “deal with maternity leave.”
We live in an era now where it's possible to juggle career and life. However, women are also often penalized for wanting to do both. This manifests in loss of career advancement opportunities, less pay, and a financial future that's not as secure as our male counterparts.
If you're a woman who has faced this, don't let the assumptions stop you from forging onwards. First, you should consider changing jobs if your current one is making you stagnate. Speak to the appropriate people so that you can continue to make waves and establish yourself so that you're indispensable, no matter how often you work or how many kids you have.
Companies that don't match your ideals or are unwilling to invest in your growth are not worth getting into. Perhaps you have no choice if you need the income, and that's ok. Just remember to keep an eye out for new opportunities that are more in line with what you want.
The most significant growth in careers often occurs when we change jobs and gain more experience. So keep an open mind!
4 – Finding Mentorship
Even if the mentors are there, women in STEM often don't feel they have access to them. The reasons for this vary depending on the job, industry, and the people involved. Also, finding female role models in the various STEM fields can be difficult as fewer women are employed.
The best thing I can say is if you feel there's no one, ask anyway until you find someone. Also, a mentor doesn't have to be in the same industry or job as you. They need to have similar goals and ambitions or be accomplished the same way you'd like to be.
5 – Lack Of A Community Or Support Network
Women in STEM have to fight to be heard and find like-minded folks (or other women) with whom they can connect and rely upon for support. Women tend to be hard on each other because the competition is so stiff that they feel the need to protect their progress & interests.
I have been on the receiving end of this. The best thing all women in STEM can do is recognize that one person's success does not mean that you are failing. Helping fellow female colleagues out will not lead to your demise.
Instead, find people on the same path and reach out. Have weekly check-ins. I can guarantee that those women are also looking to connect, and the benefits of building this network far outweigh any risk of being outpaced.
The Importance of Women in STEM
Why do any of these things matter? Not having women in STEM (or not having many) short-changes the industries and the public.
We all know that representation matters. The more women enter the fields, the more likely we are to have subsequent generations following in these footsteps. In addition, having different voices at the table making decisions, giving insight and perspective all help to create better products that help more people. This holds for any of the STEM fields.
We as a society are missing out by not giving women a fair shot at calling the shots.
How Can We Increase Women in STEM?
The obvious answer is increasing STEM coverage and education while kids are still in school and exposing them to these wonderful fields. But there are also the less apparent hurdles mentioned above that unfortunately get in the way of women ultimately choosing a career in a STEM field.
First and foremost, STEM industries must be open to having them. Many women turn away from STEM careers because they see it as a misalignment with what they want for their home life. It's assumed that such a career path means they have to sacrifice everything. While the road to success is difficult, it's not impossible, and it's not mutually exclusive.
Next, improve access to resources. Many women don't even know what's available to them either because no one told them or because they were misinformed. This isn't just about financial resources either; improving access to human resources and advice or a support system that encourages women to take charge can make a huge difference in a female student's choices.
Third, change the rhetoric around women in STEM. Let's normalize it instead of making it a big deal for a woman to pursue a STEM career. Doing so makes it more accessible, decreases stigma, and allows all women to think it's possible for them.
Last but not least, start the conversation. For many in the workforce, they may not even recognize that a problem exists. The best way to address a problem and fix it is for men and women together to acknowledge it and to talk about it. Any conversation has the potential to lead to a solution for increasing interest in the STEM fields and making them more female-friendly.
Bringing It All Together
Women in STEM are a unique group of female professionals. They must overcome many hurdles to get through school and training and move up the ranks at work. Addressing the challenges mentioned here can make it easier for women to join STEM fields and benefit us as a society.