March 25, 2020

The Importance of Engaging and Supporting Women in STEM

By Emily Ortman, SWHR Communications Director, and Sarah Osborn, SWHR Communications Associate

Women’s History Month is a perfect time to reflect on the women who have made amazing contributions in science and technology. Who comes to mind for you?

Can you name a famous woman leader in tech? Alexa and Siri don’t count.

When asked this question in a 2018 survey, nearly 92% of respondents said they couldn’t name one. Of the 8% who claimed they could, only about 4% actually did. And about a quarter of them named Siri and Alexa instead of real women.

(Check out this 2019 “Most Powerful Women in Tech” list for inspiration.)

Globally, women are underrepresented on all rungs of leadership in industries related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In 2018, more men named Michael gave presentations at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference than female CEOs did. One year later, women triumphed over the Michaels, with 33 female CEOs presenting compared to 19 Michaels, but men still made up 90% of the 533 executive presenters.

Despite the fact that women accounted for half of the total college-educated workforce in 2015, they were only 28% of the total science and engineering workforce, according to a 2018 report from the National Science Board.

In addition, women leave STEM fields over the course of their careers more often than men. One study showed new mothers are more likely to leave full-time STEM jobs than new fathers after the birth or adoption of their first child. Another study reported women engineers often feel marginalized because of their gender, especially during internships, work opportunities, or team-based educational activities.

According to a survey of women in science-related jobs, 91% said gender discrimination remains a career obstacle and 100% reported self-doubt and lack of confidence as an obstacle. These findings are not surprising as research also shows that women researchers typically earn less, receive less funding at the crucial start of their careers, and are cited less often than their male counterparts.

It is clear that in all facets of STEM, we need to cultivate environments that are more inclusive and diverse. We can do this by recruiting, supporting, and sustaining girls and women in STEM careers.

Diversity makes science better. Data suggest that gender diversity may broaden the viewpoints, questions, and areas explored by researchers, allowing greater potential for new discoveries. Without women and other underrepresented groups in science, the world may miss out on valuable innovations and ideas that alternate perspectives bring to the table.

We need to put into place policies and programs that encourage and support women in STEM careers and remove systemic barriers to their advancement. Some suggestions have included:

The research makes it clear: We need to change the culture in STEM. We need to redefine what a scientist looks like in society. The number of girls interested in STEM increases when they have female role models to inspire them and help them envision themselves in these roles. We need them to be able to name some women leaders in tech.