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Why Are Women Still So Underrepresented in STEM Careers?

STEM careers are those in the realm of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The irony is that STEM careers are wildly under served - there’s an estimated 3 million STEM jobs vacant, whilst women only represent a fraction of the workforce in these areas, never mind other groups like the current 14 million people unemployed.

People Like Me is a UK charity which supports the recruitment of girls 16+ into STEM subjects. Their statistics suggest that currently physics is the third most popular A-level for boys but only the nineteenth for girls, and of 14,000 engineering apprentices, only 450 were girls (which is about 3%). The lack of girls and women in these careers compounds women's continued lower earning compared to men in addition to creating a lack of diversity in these areas and ultimately a threat to economic growth.

There’s a huge opportunity for women to fill that gap, but women continue to head down other career paths. Whilst, women make up 47% of the total U.S. workforce, they comprise only:

  • 39% of chemists and material scientists,

  • 28% of environmental scientists and geoscientists

  • 16% of chemical engineers

  • 12% of civil engineers - U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • 8.9% in blue collar jobs such as construction (that's only 0.5% of roofers, 0.7% of brick masons, and 1.6% of pipe layers, plumbers, pipe fitters, and steamfitters are women)

  • Half of the students currently graduating with engineering degrees in the United States are white men, while only 18% are women and even fewer are minorities.

  • Just 5% of women in the country hold the position of Vice President of Engineering and 10% are in the position of Chief Investment Officer (recent LinkedIn survey).

Which industries are female-dominated?

So, where are women choosing to work? The table below from learn how to become, shows how over-represented women are in specific sectors such as teaching, administration and nursing.

STEM careers fall into a larger category of ‘non-traditional’ careers for women as defined by The U.S. Department of Labor as careers in which 25% or less of those employed in the field are women. There are still hundreds of careers which fall into that category, including:

  • Architect

  • Chef

  • Clergy Member

  • Computer Programmer

  • Engineer

  • Construction and Building Inspection

  • Machinists

  • Firefighter

  • Pilots

  • Carpenters

  • Electricians

  • Truck Driver

  • Masons

  • Detective or Special Agent

Why don’t women go into STEM careers?

The reason why women don’t venture into these careers is complex and varied. Aspires2 is the second phase of a ten-year longitudinal research project at Kings College London, studying young people's science and career aspirations (read the full report here). In sum, they've found that:

1. Lack of interest in science is not the problem

2. Careers provision is not reaching all students

3. Science Capital is key

4. Science is seen as only ‘for the brainy’ and ‘a man’s job’.

For a better understanding, watch this short video below:

Another reason women aren't going into STEM careers is a lack of seeing people like us in those roles, and of course this extends to other underrepresented groups such as minorities. If we don’t have role models or people we relate to in these areas, the consideration for a STEM career doesn’t even go as far as thinking about it and deciding not to - it’s that a lot of women and girls don’t even consider it. Personally, it never dawned on me that I could be an engineer or mathematician - certainly on a conscious level but probably subconsciously too. And when the buck stops there, we have a very long way to go.

Another problem with a lack of women in nontraditional careers is that for the ones that are, they can face discrimination and generally find it harder to be taken seriously. This issue has been recently showcased in the film hidden figures, The story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a crucial role in NASA during the Space race, serving primarily as mathematicians and ‘human computers’.

Environments can be tough. Shanahan, CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, says that "Women drop out of engineering programs with higher average grades than the men who stay in engineering programs," she added. "In a white male-dominated environment … they think there's something wrong with them, but there is something wrong with the environment."

Discrimination can span all the way from people being surprised to see a female surgeon enter a room to full on sexual harassment. This article explores the under reported harassment of women in science, suggesting the issue “stems from the power dynamics within academia and the fact that women are vastly underrepresented in the sciences. Men occupy most senior positions. For example, among physics faculty in the United States, only 8% of full professors are women. Some departments have no women on the faculty, and others have so few that an undergraduate student may never take a science course taught by a female professor. The absence of senior women has a palpable effect on the treatment of junior women. In my experience, they are often regarded as outsiders, and their opinions are frequently overlooked. This climate makes it difficult for a female target to come forward, especially if her harasser is a senior male professor.”

Which areas have improved?

Within a much broader picture of 'everything' improving, there has been some bigger progress. According to Pentagon figures, in 2011 the US military was constituted of around 14.5% of the active-duty force of nearly 1.4 million are women. That’s more than 200,000 women are in the active-duty military, including 69 generals and admirals however only 1.7 percent of women serve in combat infantry.

Within STEM careers, there has been much progress in data entry and nurse practitioner:

Why should women explore STEM careers?

There’s plenty of incentive to explore STEM careers. BLS projects that jobs in STEM fields will grow by 13% across the board through 2022. That amounts to roughly one million additional jobs, for an overall number of nine million jobs in the STEM sectors by 2022. STEM occupations have a median annual wage of nearly $76,000, or more than double the $35,080 that all other workers earned yearly as of May 2013.

A recent White House report from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, notes that “Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.” A report from the US Department of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics Administration titled “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” translates that number into dollars and cents. “On average, men and women earn $36.34 and $31.11 per hour, respectively, in STEM jobs higher than the $24.47 that men earn and $19.26 that women earn, on average, in other occupations.

What can we do to encourage more women into STEM careers?

And the most important question - what can we do about it? This of course is another complex and multi-faceted answer to match a complex and systemic problem.

Our charity partner, inspiring girls, works to solve just that. Inspiring Girls International is an organisation dedicated to raising the aspirations of young girls around the world by connecting them with female role models. Learn more about their fantastic work through their website here.

Speaking of role models, giving women in STEM careers a broader platform to raise awareness about the issue and excite young girls and women about the prospects of STEM is a powerful motivator.

Another way to turn the tide is of course to raise awareness. One way to do that is starting early and addressing the ideals that we’re instilling in our children. That can start with conscious shopping for girls clothing at Not just a Princess and other retailers too, who are leading the way on gender-neutral clothing.

Getting girls interested in STEM at a younger age may also be beneficial. Time ideas suggests "Creating STEM programming that engages girls earlier in their elementary and secondary-school education will help shift the classroom dynamic away from one that is majority boys and thus more welcoming to girls".

We're making progress and in some areas, the number of women entering STEM careers is growing, but there's still a long way to go.

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