Why Some Countries Have More Women in STEM

Across the world women are more likely than men to be uneducated or undereducated. However, even in countries of relative parity, men outnumber women in STEM careers, confirming our need to look beyond education to solve this issue.  I discussed the importance of all of us leaders to get involved and to act as role models in a previous post, but I would like to delve deeper into why this is even necessary.

As reported by UNESCO, not all countries have trouble getting women into STEM careers. There are many factors which could contribute to this, such as availability of jobs and educational programming, but there is one factor which I found to stick out repeatedly: Perception – The perception that STEM roles are not for women.

STEM careers, it is thought, are just not something women typically do. And so we don’t. Not because we actively think, “women shouldn’t do this,” but because it sits in our subconscious from childhood onward and is continuously reinforced by the male dominated STEM culture in our schools and our companies.

In the September 2014 Wired Magazine, author, Vikram Chandra, wrote, “In India, women feel at home in engineering. One 2013 study of Indian engineering students asked whether they ever felt left out in an academic setting. About 8 percent of female engineers reported such feelings.”

Similarly, in their study on Malaysia, Women in Computer Science: NO SHORTAGE HERE!, Mazliza Othman and Rodziah Latih concluded, “There is no gender bias with regard to how CS/IT is perceived by young Malaysians. Even though male students often started their bachelor degree program with more computer skills, it does not result in male students outperforming female students. Neither are females underrepresented among the high achievers. Female students are also more certain they will pursue a career in computer/IT industry compared to male students.”

The perception of STEM fields as masculine tends not to be shared by countries where the participation rates are higher for women. This results in more women pursuing the field, and thus contributes to the presence of more female mentors and role models. There are more female teachers and faculty at schools, more female PhDs, and so on. It’s a snowball effect – without the perceptual barriers – more women join, more women lead, and thus the idea that STEM roles are only for men becomes even more absurd.

However, in the US, and many other countries around the world, our perceptions are preventing this effect from taking course. This is why it is critical that we act as role models, as examples for the field. This is why we should push back against media that represents scientists solely as males or those rare female scientists as oddities to whom hardly anyone could relate. We have to provide a community of support to those already in these roles that will help them to be successful and give affirmation to those looking to pursue it. Finally, we have to stop defining career paths by distinctive skills and characteristics, because in today’s ever changing world – no role is black and white, and the programmers and mathematicians and scientists of the future will need to be as diversely skilled as the teachers and marketers and nurses.

Why women aren’t in STEM careers and what we can do about it

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


What I’m reading now: Your Journey to Executive

Below are a few key insights from IBM Women Executives from the 2012-2013 Advancing Women at IBM Executive Research Study, in which 639 IBM women executives participated.

  • Be Visible: “It isn’t about getting people to perform better; it is about visibility of those performing well.”
  • Plan Your Career: “Find what you’re passionate about, develop a game plan and execute that plan with confidence.”
  • Integrate Work & Life: “Flexible work arrangements are options that enable employees to meet their personal needs and also permit the company to deliver on its commitments to clients and the business.”

Are you a female executive? What insights do you have? Share them in the comments below.

What I’m Reading Now: Lean In

We can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution. The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.

I am currently reading Lean In and know it has come with some controversy. I am curious to hear if you have read the book and what you took from it. Leave your thoughts below!