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Reversing the Tide To Provide More Opportunity for Women in STEM

Group of female scientists standing together in a laboratory.
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Courtney Noah. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

The gender gap for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) remains significant, with women making up only 28% of the STEM workforce. Fueling this gap is the stigma that the industry is viewed as a more male-dominated workforce, further adding to the hesitation and discouragement from girls and women to pursue education and careers in STEM.

A study published in Science found that “a surprisingly large number of low-achieving men” study physics, engineering and computer science, while only women who are the top scorers in math and science go on to major in these subjects. This further widens the gender gap as men are preferentially encouraged to enter STEM while only high-achieving women are recommended to pursue studies in this area.

There is a serious lack of education and dedicated career programs early on to encourage women to pursue STEM. By the time students reach college, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM majors. According to the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Solving the Equation report, “only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer science majors are women.”

This number is concerningly low and could be increased across all areas of STEM if women had dedicated programs before and during college and throughout their careers that clearly outlined the benefits. So, how do we reverse the tide and break down the barriers that are impeding women and girls in STEM? Let’s explore the possible solutions and advice.


Breaking down the barriers with tangible solutions

While there is no one answer, one thing is clear – it's time the industry as a whole does its part to provide more opportunities for women. To that end, part of the solution requires companies to consider more qualified female applicants – without this effort, we will never move the needle.

In addition to considering a wider pool of female applicants, companies also need to provide training and support for their female workforce so that they have more opportunity to grow personally and professionally within the organization. While hiring is the first step, retention and education are the next and arguably the most important.

We see another common thread across STEM (and most other industries) that needs to be addressed, which is workplace equity. According to Pew Research Center analysis, a typical STEM worker earns two-thirds more than non-STEM workers. And crucially, “some of the highest-earning STEM occupations, such as computer science and engineering, have the lowest percentages of women workers,” states AAUW.

Additionally, the Global STEM Salary Survey 2023 found that a significant pay gap remains for women working in STEM fields in Europe and North America, across all age groups surveyed. This trend is concerning as women who are in the same career field, and even position, have the right to earn as much as their male counterparts.

This journey is personal and mentorship is key

While no one career journey is the same, it’s important for women to think about a few things when considering a STEM career path. Speaking from personal experience, I want to express to other women the ability to feel empowered to explore different career options versus sticking to the first one you are exposed to.

For example, interest in STEM started early on in high school for me, originally within engineering. In college, I realized that this path was not the best for the set of skills and passions that I had. From there I explored food and life sciences which led me to where I am today – in a role that best fits my strengths and provides me with work that I find exciting and fulfilling.

All this to say, it might take a few tries to find your perfect fit but there is something to be said about the dedication and commitment women have to finding a career that’s best for them.

It is critical that women feel empowered to step out of their comfort zone and not to feel discouraged with the process, should they want to make a change from the direction in which they originally set out on. 

Another big part of the journey is the mentorship and relationships built and developed through school and work. To that end, the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles within STEM makes it harder for women pursuing careers to see themselves in the roles.

Thus, it is of even greater importance that women who are experienced in their STEM careers prioritize mentorship opportunities and raise their hand to guide the next generation. And, while the impact of female mentorship cannot be understated, it’s also important to note the benefits of insights from a diverse set of backgrounds (either male or female) that will set you up for success. Those that will push you to grow and develop by challenging you are the ones that you should keep in your court.


Hope for the future

While the industry is improving in certain areas for women in STEM – providing flexibility in the workplace for example – there is still much work that needs to be done to provide equal access and opportunity to females of all ages. From high school to elementary school students, women entering the workforce and those who are already in STEM, mentorship and dedicated programs will be crucial to truly move the needle and break down the barriers existing today. 

It’s also crucial for companies to be involved and address these issues. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it also benefits them to be inclusive. According to a McKinsey report, “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians” – which to me, says something about its importance.   

With these solutions and advice, I am hopeful for the current and future generations within STEM. I am proud to be part of this growing workforce and will continue to educate and learn from others throughout my own career journey.

About the author:

Dr. Courtney Noah is BioIVT's vice president of scientific affairs. She leads a team that provides solutions for BioIVT’s clients and business partners. Dr. Noah received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Stony Brook University, and her BS is in Food Science from Cornell University.