Why do women resist STEM fields?

Why do women resist STEM fields?

Summary: The lack of women in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science.

TOPICS: IT Employment, CXO

Commentary - As a society, we learn about the world and advance our well-being through science and engineering. The United States may be known around the world for its higher education, but compared to many other leading and steadily emerging countries we lack a strong focus on educating scientists and engineers. One significant reason that we have fallen behind is that we do not encourage our female students to pursue career paths in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM). This needs to change, as the lack of women in STEM will continue to plague our country until all students, regardless of sex, have adequate opportunities to explore math and science throughout elementary, middle, and high school. If we want to attract the best and brightest minds into the fields that will move us forward, we can no longer look to only half of the population. More women can contribute to our field and we can help make that happen.

While young people today have more opportunities to become exposed to STEM subjects than 20 years ago, more still needs to be done. Out of school programs are gaining popularity, and in order for that to continue, those of us in STEM fields have to support both local and national efforts to foster girls by functioning as a mentor.

The value of mentorship is irreplaceable. Finding a mentor early on can do wonders for the amount of satisfaction we find in our jobs, thus leading to a higher retention rate. The people that we choose as mentors need to have the capacity and capability to lead us toward success. A mentor is not only someone who is willing to take the time to teach us techniques and processes but also someone who takes an interest in our long term advancement. Because this person can see one’s potential, he or she is willing to go beyond job duties and put in the extra work to ensure that we gain the understanding that is needed to progress.

One of the most important confidence builders can be found day to day on the job or in school in the form of a mentor. Teaming with a mentor is a career strategy that can bring huge benefits, especially to women in unbalanced work environments like engineering. The majority of successful women time and time again credit their participation in some sort of mentorship for dramatically helping them reach their career goals.

However, even with mentorship, the fact still remains that women in STEM careers have higher attrition rates than do their male coworkers and women in careers outside of the STEM disciplines. In 2005, the Society of Women Engineers conducted a retention study of over 6000 engineering graduates. The survey indicated that one in four women were either unemployed or employed in other fields compared to one in ten men (Frehill, L., SWE, Summer 2008, page 15). Addressing the reasons why the attrition rates are drastically higher is important for starting the discussion and correcting the problem. Researchers are exploring other factors that possibly overwhelm women in STEM fields, including extreme work schedules, more frequent disciplinary actions and unclear rules about advancement.

Women are gaining numbers in traditionally male dominated fields, but they are still significantly outnumbered in STEM occupations. Getting talented women into male dominated careers is one struggle, while keeping them is another. The issue is especially apparent in STEM careers, which is extremely important to the global economy. Attracting and retaining more women in STEM careers will help tremendously to improve diversity, maximize creativity, and boost competitiveness.

Having people with different mind-sets, capabilities, and imaginations on production teams improves the creative process and helps to minimize avoidable mistakes. Products rooted in science and technology are likely to better meet the needs of both men and women if the products are designed by team comprised of both genders. It is a matter of designing products that are compatible with a broad audience; it is a matter of safety; and it starts with attracting more women into STEM careers.

As women become more prevalent in STEM careers, more and more young girls will begin to recognize the additional career opportunities open to them. With more women in the field, it will become more evident to young girls what they, as engineers, can offer the world. Without being able to see this link, they will continue to have problems envisioning certain positions as viable possibilities, even if they have some intrinsic interest in the subject matter. If girls cannot visualize themselves in STEM careers because they have never seen women in those positions, they will be much less likely to ever use their innate aptitudes and abilities in a math or science oriented specialty. That will truly be a loss of gigantic proportion, for our women, our profession and our country.

Karen Purcell, P.E. is the founder, owner, and president of PK Electrical, an award-winning electrical engineering, design and consulting firm, which handles public and private sector work. She is author of the forthcoming book, "Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math." She is available for speaking engagements. Website: http://www.unlockingyourbrilliance.com, http://www.STEMspire.com, http://www.pkelectrical.com

Topics: IT Employment, CXO

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  • so we need more affirmative actions for women

    big gov must get involved...
    Let's allow the market to work!
    The Linux Geek
    • This is why.

      Alpha males prove very difficult and downright unprofessional when faced with an equally intelligent woman. Their pack mentality surfaces. I have put up with behavior and been the butt of horrid slurs by grown men because they don't understand how to function with the "woman" variable. This must account for a decent percentage of the attrition. You do your job because passion for the field drew you - not some masochistic desire to be denigrated on a daily basis. Nothing will change the attitudes except time and a larger concentration of top notch women in STEM careers.
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  • Just natural selection.

    When I was in technical school in the 1950's, the same stuff was being propagandized. Although some women can be good at science and math, most can not. This "equality" nonsense has been going on for more than 60 years about the sciences. Give it up!!!! On the flip side, most men are not good at raising children.
    • The real dinosaurs went extinct too.

      Your comment simply proves that one way change comes is for the folks who can't change to be replaced by new folks who can accept new ideas.
    • women and math and science and utter nonsense

      And when I was in high school in the 1940s, it was the girls who excelled in math and science; the boys were behind us. Natural selection, my foot! The selection was in hiring practices, especially as the young men came home from war: Rosie the Riveter was told to go home and make babies so the men could have the jobs. As a freshman at Temple University in 1948, I was advised to switch my major to engineering; when I stopped laughing I asked how many Jewish engineers were being hired--let alone female Jewish engineers.

      So instead of working actively in science or technology or engineering or math, I wrote about them and turned the scientific and technological and engineering and mathematical (not to mention medical) papers men had written into coherent English.

      The premise that girls were not qualified/were disinterested/were too whatever-the-hell was and still is wrong: it was a construct, and a mindset that has kept many young women from even trying for STEM careers.

      Lay that nonsense to rest. Whatever it takes to get our bright young women into these fields--do it! But do not continue to poison the academic atmosphere with that garbage about them lacking the ability to do so.
  • Well, we have this bad habit of totally ignoring biology.

    Well, we have this bad habit of totally ignoring differences in biology. Men and women simply are not biologically the same, and tend towards different things.

    Yet some people insist that things have exactly equal numbers, otherwise something's "wrong."

    I'm sorry, but that's just plain ignorance of biology. I don't mind women working in these fields, but I'm not gonna force it onto them just for the sake of balancing out some numbers.

    Equality in my mind doesn't mean exactly the same numbers, but rather equal opportunity.

    I've never seen somebody in the STEM fields exhibit any sort of gender prejudice in the time that I've worked as a software developer, so I'm guessing this is biological rather than prejudicial. Women simply aren't interested in these fields AFAIK.

    If there [i]is[/i] some evidence of prejudice in these fields, we certainly need to take care of it. I hate prejudice as much as anybody else. But without further evidence of prejudice, I dunno if there's really much we should be doing about it.
    • Agreed - but than I'm a male.

      Perhaps I view these points by you (and which I agree with) from that "male" perspective. However, I never experienced a scientific "glass ceiling" atmosphere towards female advancement in the scientific fields. I have experienced sexual harassment towards some of my female friends but that is a totally different topic.
  • Stick to engineering

    Clearly, STEM is your field, Ms. Purcell, not social science or social policy. Take a look at the research over the last 50 or 60 years. While many women, such as yourself, are good at and interested in STEM, most simply are not, [i][b]relative to men[/b][/i].
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