Women are still outnumbered by men in engineering, mathematics, and science fields. We say “still” because there have been efforts for years to eliminate this disparity and get more women working in STEM fields. Certain obstacles have stood in the way, including misconceptions such as “men are innately better suited to STEM fields” and other beliefs that are based more in misguided perception than reality. Many of these falsehoods have been overcome to an extent, with the number of women entering science and engineering fields growing. However, there still exists the male/female STEM gap, especially at the highest achievement levels.
There are numerous reasons why more diversity in STEM fields is important. The biggest one is the “demand…is intense” for scientists in STEM-related fields and this demand “cannot be met without including both men and women” (Mullet, et al.). Women “bring diversity to the scientific community” and this “increased diversity has positive implications for science” (Mullet, et al.). So it’s clear there is a need for increasing the number of women working in STEM fields simply to help meet the economic demand and skilled-labor shortage, but also because their representation brings “useful, creative, or innovative ideas that may not otherwise make their way forward” (Mullet, et al.).
Despite the aforementioned efforts over the years to reduce their underrepresentation, there are still problems and obstacles that women in STEM face. These obstacles include the perceived biases in STEM work settings, the misconceptions that men are better-suited for STEM, and female lack of interest in STEM subjects (Mullet, et al.). Even when women get equal or better grades than men and demonstrate equal or better talent levels than men in STEM subjects, they are still less likely to pursue a STEM major or career (Stoeger, et al.).
While there have been extensive studies on why women exit STEM fields, what cannot be ignored are the reasons why women actually do stay and pursue high-level achievement in these fields. Identifying the reasons why women succeed is just as important as the reasons why they don’t. Major factors why women continue to pursue STEM careers include interest in the subject matter, positive STEM perception/identity, and building readiness at the precollege level (Mullet, et al.). Women that value science, problem solving, and intellectually-challenging situations are likely to pursue academic paths in STEM. Along with initial interest, they also need to formulate a strong STEM identity, meaning they need to recognize their own abilities in terms of competence and their ability to excel in STEM. Readiness is also very important; building related skills and knowledge before college helps to foster women’s interest and STEM identities that help them pursue STEM degrees and careers (Mullet, et al.).
STEM curriculum that has real-world connections and is focused on problem solving can promote women’s STEM interest, readiness, and identity. Material that is structured around engineering design problems that have these real-world connections can be personally relevant and could even be altruistic in the sense that they deal with applications of solving problems that can positively impact others or the environment. Early educational focus on learning, problem solving, engineering concepts, and even altruism can help women to ultimately pursue STEM degrees and succeed in STEM fields.
While trends have been positive, women in STEM fields are still underrepresented. By identifying the reasons why qualified women don’t pursue STEM careers and also why women with careers in STEM do succeed, we can take steps to eliminate the disproportionate gender gap that still exists. Eliminating misconceptions, fostering early interest, and building STEM readiness and identity through strong curriculum are important steps to promote more women in STEM and increase STEM diversity.
Mullet, Diana R., Anne N. Rinn, and Todd Kettler. “Catalysts of Women’s Talent Development in STEM: A Systematic Review”. Journal of Advanced Academics: Vol. 28(4) p. 253-289. 2017.
Stoeger, Heidrun, Manuel Hopp, and Albert Ziegler. “Online Mentoring as an Extracurricular Measure to Encourage Talented Girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics): An Empirical Study of One-on-One Versus Group Mentoring”. Gifted Child Quarterly: Vol. 61(3) p. 239-249. 2017.