In 2011, the Department of Commerce released a report on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) positions, which found that a mere 24% of these positions are held by women – a rate that had scantly improved since the decade before. Despite the fact that more women than men go to college now, just 27% of students seeking a degree in STEM fields are women and only a quarter of those actually end up in STEM careers. Adding to this disconnect, girls are equitably represented in STEM courses through high school suggesting some force beyond access to education contributes to the gender gap.
But why does it all matter? Why is STEM so important anyhow? When a country is competitive in the STEM fields, they are competitive in the world. With the rate of technology adaption, that becomes even more critical. This explains why many of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields and why women who work in STEM earn 33% more than those not in STEM.
There are a variety of reasons that may contribute to girls not seeking STEM degrees and even more reasons they may go on to not choose STEM careers even if they do, but much of it may unfortunately be due to societal norms and culture. As Professor, Eileen Pollack, wrote in the New York Times, “I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.”
As a mother, it is unacceptable to me that any child, male or female, should ever be discouraged by society to do something for which they have a talent and interest. So perhaps it is up to all of us leaders, especially those of us with backgrounds in STEM, to change the narrative of what it means to be in STEM professions. It is our obligation to step out as role models for the next generation and say, “Yes, you can do this!”
As an IBMer, I am lucky to work with many talented, technical women in an environment that encourages the professional growth of them. IBM is recognized for its support of women, having introduced women to the professional ranks as early as the 1930s. And if you’re looking for role models, the women of IBM are a great place to start – pioneers, inventors, patent awardees, research fellows, Distinguished Engineers, A.M. Turing Award winners, authors, and even CEOs.
But still, there is more to be done. More of us need to stand up, not only as examples, but as catalysts for changing the landscape of STEM. We need to share our own experiences and encourage, mentor, and educate girls from a young age. We need to remind the world that there are no limits to the intellectual capacities of an individual, no matter their gender, and that potential for success should be based on their abilities and achievements and nothing else.
As Pollack wrote, “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.” I am involved in one such effort of encouragement, LabCandy. The mission of LabCandy is to cultivate young girls’ interest in science by showing them that the field has room for girls like them. So I encourage you to get involved in an encouragement effort as well. There are many avenues, choose one and act – let young women who are wondering if they have what it takes know that they do!
Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation – Department of Commerce, 2011
Women in STEM – White House
Why STEM Education is Important to Everyone – Science Pioneers
Why There Are Still So Few Women in Science – NY Times, Eileen Pollack, 2013