How Businesses, Colleges Can Help Close It
Women with an academic degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — collectively called STEM — have accounted for 42% of the total over the last 40 years. At the same time, to date they represent only 27% of the workforce in these fields, according to figures cited by the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). The reasons for this disparity are complex, ranging from cultural stereotypes to lack of adequate academic role models, to the business world not doing enough to retain female STEM professionals by offering them pay equal to that of men working in the same sphere, for instance, or by failing to provide them with family-friendly options. The results are that the now recovering economy is losing a major competitive edge by not hiring and retaining more women in STEM. STEM is gaining increasing importance on a global level; technology alone is transforming all aspects of life and business, so it is more important than ever before for companies to ensure that they get the best talent. In fact, not regardless of gender, because studies suggest that gender diversity contributes to financial performance (McKinsey&Co, 2007). By examining the reasons that make women give up pursuing a STEM career or not even try despite having an academic degree in the field, we could suggest ways in which the corporate world, which stands to gain a lot by encouraging gender diversity, could help change the current situation.
One of the factors at play is gender stereotypes, which states that women do not go into tech and engineering, simple as that. Women care for the family, they raise children and they choose a career path accordingly. Also, the stereotype suggests that boys are better equipped mentally for STEM careers, while girls are better in other fields, such as the humanities – a stereotype that has been debunked by research looking into the science performance of girls at school as compared to boys and finding that girls are in no way worse than boys in the said field (Riegle-Crumb et al. 2012). These stereotypes are extremely persistent, thanks in no small degree to popular culture and the academic paradigm that most universities follow. Pop culture shows women in positions of power but rarely in the STEM field (Huhnam, 2012); the academic paradigm for science training simply discourages women from pursuing a career in the field (AWIS, 2013). The lack of suitable role models also contributes to career choices.
A Ph.D. training course in science, technology, engineering and mathematics typically takes six years, and postdoctoral training takes up another three to five years, during all of which the trainee is not necessarily bringing home a sufficiently big paycheck. What’s more, this period of academic training coincides with a woman’s prime child-bearing years, which presents any driven woman with the tough choice between a scientific career and family. It is only understandable that many opt out of the STEM field and settle for careers that provide them with better opportunities to balance their work and family. According to the AWIS, encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers will be economically beneficial, not least because there is a great amount of investment in STEM education that, when women choose to follow a different path, yields no return. Also, with the population aging, while in 2008 the US had 4.7 active workers for every retired one, OECD projections for 2050 are that the ratio will be 2.6 workers per one retiree, which makes every addition to the workforce valuable. This value is especially highlighted in a study from the University of Chicago and Stanford, whose authors estimated that between 15% and 20% of the nation’s productivity is accounted for by people gaining access to professions previously unattainable due to their gender or ethnicity.
The lack of role models at the academic level is another major issue: although women get almost half the STEM university degrees, few of them stay in academia as a career choice. They make up just a meagre 8% of all engineering professors, and less than 20% of science and engineering full professors, taken as a whole. What this means is that academic establishments are failing to take advantage of the benefits that women in senior positions can bring them, one of which is being a role model for current students. Universities often view postdoctoral trainees as “non-employees”, for instance, which exempts them from coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This means that they get no leave to care for their newborn or adopted child, a sick family member or to manage a health condition they have themselves. It goes without saying, this represents a major discouraging factor for women to try to combine a science career with a family because of the sacrifices it would require. What this amounts to in the end is a vicious circle where girls need encouragement to go for STEM degrees but this encouragement often goes to waste in the face of all the obstacles they would have to overcome, rendering the necessary efforts unjustifiable.
One may ask why is it so important to encourage women to go into STEM careers — after all, a career choice is an individual matter. There are, however, major, and wider, implications of the disparity between men and women in this field. For one thing, the pay gap between men and women in STEM is narrower than the overall. According to a study from the Economics and Statistics Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2009 women in STEM earned about 33% more than women at comparable positions outside STEM. In figures, women in STEM earned $31.11 per hour on average in 2009, compared with $36.34 for men, a pay gap of 14%. Outside STEM, women earned on average $19.26 per hour, as opposed to $24.47 for men, a gap of 21%. Things don’t seem to have changed much since then, says author Celia Islam. Women earn on average $0.80 to every dollar a man earns (Department of Labor, 2012). At the same time, STEM is shaping up to be the major industry that hires and the one that offers the best wages. To add to this, there will be a total of 1.4 million new job openings in computer technology alone in the USA by 2020, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, but only 30% of them would be filled by U.S. tech graduates, based on the way things look like now. More women going into STEM would mean more positions will be filled by local talent and more women would be able to support their families.
The business world is now more aware than ever before of the losses it could incur in terms of investment in the training and retention of women who decide to leave their careers because of inflexible work hours and lack of family-related benefits, so many companies have begun offering flexible schedules, paid maternity leave, the option of paternity leave, as well as company-paid childcare and family healthcare benefits in order to retain talent. This does not seem to be the case with academic institutions, however, which are a major talent incubator for STEM. According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, married women with children are 35% less likely to go into a tenure-track position after getting a Ph. D. in science than their male counterparts. Married women with children are also 28% less likely to become tenured in sciences than childless women. The report recommended more flexible schedules for the tenure process as well as more family benefits in order to encourage women to stay in the science research pipeline, research being at the heart of any STEM advancement. Having a family and raising children is by no means an obligation, the authors of the report note. Still, women should not be forced to choose only one of the two: a science career or a family.
All that said, the process of encouragement should start at an early age with erasing the stereotypes that make a STEM career an unpopular choice among girls. Research reviewed by Alicia Chang, curriculum developer lead at Play-i, the company that designed the programming robots for children Bo and Yana, suggests that as early as age five children are seriously divided in their perceptions of their own STEM competence, even though there is no discernible gender difference in actual abilities in these fields. Come third grade, one study revealed, boys were likely to rate their competence in math higher than girls, although there were no differences in actual performance in this subject. Perceptions about one’s own capability in a certain field undoubtedly impacts performance by taking away from girls the confidence that they could do just as well as boys in math and sciences. What should change is first of all the attitude of parents regarding their children’s abilities, Chang suggests, referring to studies that have shown that children are socialized differently with regard to STEM abilities. And that is without mentioning gender-specific toys that kids play with from a very early age and which promote the development of spatial reasoning and building abilities more in boys. Chang concludes that gender stereotypes are very deeply ingrained in our culture, assigning boys and girls their traditional slots as early as age two and doing nothing to encourage a more equal gender representation in STEM. Erasing these stereotypes starts at home, by getting your daughter a box of building blocks instead of a doll that would supposedly teach her how to be a mother. Knowing how to be a mother is best taught by example, but learning how to be confident in her mathematical abilities and choosing to develop them, rather than switch to something more “girl-like” is something for which any little girl needs her parents to help her. That is not to say that a girl should be forced down the STEM path, of course, rather that parents would do well to encourage their daughters’ natural inclinations and if they don’t want to play with dolls but prefer to build bridges, they should be given the opportunity to do just that. Five years later they will be more likely to be confident that they could make a good civil engineer.
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