By Constance St. Germain
October 31, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
As a society, there is a great deal of work to do when it comes to leveling the playing field of equal representation of men and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers. While we talk about the need for and benefits of women pursuing careers in these fields, the reality is that while 57 percent of women participate in the U.S. workforce, they are consistently underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statics, just over 36 percent of chemists and material scientists are women. The percentage drops to 25 percent for computer and mathematics professionals and a mere 15 percent among engineering professionals.
Much has been written about ways we can inspire young girls to pursue traditionally male dominated careers, and much has been written about the ways we can break down the barriers that have traditionally kept them away. Yet a recent survey by University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences, conducted by Morning Consult, found that only 51 percent of Americans agree that there are still many more men than women working in STEM careers. When it comes to acknowledging—to say nothing of actually addressing—the STEM gap, we’re only halfway there.
Approximately half of Americans do realize we need more women working in STEM related fields, and awareness of the issue has been trending in the right direction. However, the stakes are too high for these numbers to still be so low. The United States can’t remain competitive when only 13 percent of engineers are women. One analysis in 2012 found that that only 5.5 percent of commercial patent holders are women, and that eliminating the shortfall among holders of science and engineering degrees could boost gross domestic product by more than 2 percent.
When these fields are missing women’s perspectives, not only are they missing out on the important solutions that can come from these perspectives, they can even overlook serious problems. The development of the seatbelt is a textbook example of the real world impact this can have. Seatbelts were initially engineered for a male body of average weight and height—female crash dummies were only introduced in 2011. The result of this oversight has been seatbelts that put women at a higher risk of injury, or even death, than men.
The data also point to another significant challenge for women in STEM. The survey found that 47 percent of voters believe women have the same opportunities in STEM careers as men. But do they? Research into gender bias in the field suggests the unfortunate reality that women have it harder in STEM fields. A 2012 study found that when giving male and female applicants with identical application materials, science faculty viewed the male as more competent and hirable. A 2014 study came to a similar conclusion when it found that participants who were hiring for a math related job were twice as likely to hire a man even when a woman had an identical skill set.
Fortunately, many are willing, even eager, to address the STEM gap for women, after the issues and opportunities are explained. For example, the survey found that after respondents learned that women make up almost half of the total U.S. workforce, but are much less represented in particular science and engineering occupations, voters were more likely to support increased federal funding for STEM programs at colleges and universities. Similarly, after learning that women in STEM jobs typically earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, voters were 60 percent more likely to support increased funding.
It is important to note that in our modern and digital society, technology plays a role in almost every industry. Encouraging women to explore STEM education is important not just for women interested in engineering, but for professional women in all fields. Being well-versed in technology can be a valuable asset in any career, and as a significant portion of the workforce, this includes women. It’s important to build structures for women in all fields to feel that they have a community behind them that wants them to succeed. Initiatives such as the Women’s Leadership initiative at University of Phoenix encourage female students to oppose biases in their industry, and create a network of support in their professional lives.
So how do we bridge the STEM gap? How do we encourage girls to be interested in technology and science, and break past the bias surrounding gender and STEM? The way we treat girls and boys differently is an important first step. Even small actions, such as encouraging girls to explore a variety of play, including science, technology and math may impact the interests they will have their entire lives. And we must make sure this encouragement in these fields lasts throughout, and beyond their education. A 2011 report from the Department of Commerce found that only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees actually went on to work STEM jobs.
So it looks like we have our work cut out for us. The half of us that see the problem must increase our efforts to reach the half of us that don’t. Expanding efforts to put more women at the table in the STEM discussion is crucial for raising awareness and breaking down bias. Events like the 2016 Women in STEM Conference in Dallas, hosted by University of Phoenix, encourage thought leaders and educators to not only think about the gender gap in STEM, but to hear from women in the field speak to their experiences. We must not only point to examples that show the challenges which result from the lack of women in STEM, but offer encouragement for those who pursue an education and a profession in these fields.
Constance St. Germain is executive dean of the Colleges of Humanities and Sciences and Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix.
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