Millennial women are under a lot of pressure – whether, in school or the workforce, there’s a lot to juggle. One of the most important choices to make both in education and the workplace is what to focus on – which area of study or career can you be passionate about and earn a good living?
The term STEM – for science, technology, engineering, and math – was born in the late 1990s, and as a result, many millennials have grown up hearing about women in STEM. Traditionally, women were steered away from careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, even if there was a keen interest. This article will look at gender inequality in STEM, and how today’s millennial women have more opportunities than ever before. Also, STEM careers typically pay well – women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.[i]
A recent study by the Girl Scout Research Institute reports that American teenage girls are fascinated with the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. According to this study, about 74% of high school girls across the country are interested in STEM.[ii] Given this level of interest, why aren’t more millennials majoring in STEM-related subjects in college and pursuing careers in STEM?
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Despite outdated stereotypes that boys are inherently better at these subjects, testing says otherwise – girls test at the same level as boys in math and science. Yet, girls end up choosing STEM majors at the college-level at a much lower rate than boys. And, of those that study STEM subjects in college, there is a drop-off in women who actually pursue STEM careers.
Given the growing number of job openings in STEM careers, it is important for U.S. colleges to understand this issue, and work toward encouraging a higher number of students to choose to study STEM topics in order to meet workforce requirements.
Some Stats about STEM
Research states that in the last ten years, STEM jobs increased three times faster than non-STEM jobs. Also, STEM jobs will grow at a rate of 17% till 2018, compared to 9.8% growth rate for all other careers.
Interestingly, although 57% of the 20.2 million students at American colleges and universities are women[iii], only about 25% of STEM degree holders are women due largely to a lack of female college students studying engineering, computer science, and physical sciences.[iv]
And, the statistics continue to dwindle as women enter the workforce. A report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that only 26% of women with a STEM college degree have entered a STEM career.[v] Many women point to a culture where there is little flexibility and stereotypes and bias related to motherhood, age, race or sexuality persist.[vi] Those who drop out end up going into other careers, such as business or education.
So, if girls have an interest in STEM in high school, why isn’t that interest translating into STEM majors in college, and eventually STEM careers?
What Characteristics Indicate STEM Interest?
There are certain traits and characteristics that set girls apart who have an interest in STEM. The Girl Scout Research Institute study found that confidence, high academic goals and aspirations, hard work, persistence, and adult supports were all higher for the girls interested in STEM. Yet, these traits could be considered “success indicators” in any field. The additional factor was exposure to STEM fields.
If you know someone who works in a STEM field, particularly a woman in STEM, or if you have experience with hands-on activities such as doing experiments at home, going to science or technology museums, or participating in outside-of-school STEM activities such as camps or after-school programs, this seems to be a significant factor in considering a degree or a career in STEM.[vii]
What are some of the initiatives that are helping spark a continued interest today?
Toys, Scouting, and the White House Science Fair – What works?
Many STEM advocates believe exposure needs to start with very young girls and the toys they play with. An article from The New Yorker magazine, titled “Can Toys Create Future Engineers?”[viii] discusses how smart thinkers have tapped the toy industry to spark a girl’s interest in STEM concepts from a very early age.
One example is Goldie Blox[ix], a company that aims to “disrupt the pink aisle” and inspire the future generation of engineers. The company was founded by Debbie Sterling, an engineering major at Stanford, who launched the company via a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The mission of the Goldie Blox brand is to get girls building and to level the playing field. In just three years the toys have exploded in term of distribution and won numerous awards, not to mention immense publicity from a Super Bowl commercial (won in a contest), a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and a trip to the White House.
Speaking of the White House, President Obama is also trying to reenergize STEM for all American students, and he has created initiatives to increase the number of students and teachers in STEM field.[x] The 2015 White House Science Fair – the fifth ever – featured dozens of students and a specific focus on girls and women who are excelling in STEM and inspiring the next generation with their work.
President Obama stated, ““One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields, and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.”[xi]
Why the Paradox?
The Girl Scout Research Institute explores the paradox between interest in STEM and pursuing a STEM degree or career. The study showed the following results:
- Female STEM students (57%) feel that in a STEM career, they would have to work a lot harder than a man just to survive.
- 47% of females reported that would feel very uncomfortable being completely outnumbered by boys in a STEM class or STEM group.
- Many girls responded they were unsure how their STEM careers would benefit society, which indicates that if they know about the beneficial consequences of their work, they would be more interested in STEM careers.
Also, interest does not always translate to career choice. Girls with an interest in STEM also had a wide variety of interest in other areas.
In order to refocus the above gender-stereotyped thinking, the Girl Scouts have developed a program to encourage middle and high-school girls to pursue STEM education at the college level. Girl Scouting has proved beneficial for STEM aspirants because here they can freely engage in exploration and experiments—unhindered by any social pressures created by a typically mixed-gender classroom environment.
Strong STEM Support
A strong global, STEM ecosystem is required to ensure that female students graduate with both sufficient technical and other professional skills they need to succeed in STEM careers. As success is judged by raw numbers, more women STEM professionals will have to prove themselves in a male-dominated world.
A strong mentorship culture created by female STEM executives can be a good starting point. In addition to mentors, STEM role models – both male and female – can help show the different options for career paths. Exposure to STEM activities outside of school, and ditching the “nerdy” stereotype also help. The #IAmAnEngineer and #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag on Twitter are an attempt to show that engineers might not be who you expect.
The tide may be starting to turn. Data compiled for the period of 2009-2013 shows a 20% increase in science and engineering bachelor’s degrees for women, as compared to 12% growth in non-science and engineering fields.[xii] Good news indeed for millennial women.
[i] The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Women in STEM
[ii] Girl Scout Research Institute, “Generation STEM: What Girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” 2012.
[iii] National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics, 2015.
[iv] US News & World Report, “Colleges Work to Retain Women in STEM Majors,” by Kelsey Sheehy, July 1, 2013.
[v] United States Department of Commerce, STEM: Good jobs now and for the future, 2011.
[vi] Fortune, “Why women leave tech: It’s the culture, not because ‘math is hard’,” by Kieran Snyder, October 2, 2014
[vii] Girl Scout Research Institute, “Generation STEM: What Girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” 2012.
[viii] The New Yorker, “Can Toys Create Future Engineers?” by Elizabeth Weiss, December 12, 2013.
[ix] Goldie Blox website
[x] US Department of Education, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math: Education for Global Leadership
[xi] The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Women in STEM, President Obama, February 2013.
[xii] Snapshot Report, “Growth in Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees by Gender,” November 19, 2013.