Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields

By Cassie Phillips
When it comes to studying STEM subjects at school, male and female students perform equally well. Unfortunately, this parity doesn’t always carry over into the professional world where there is a significant gender gap in the science and technology workforces. As important as it is to investigate what deters young women from pursuing these careers, we should also a closer look at how we can encourage them to follow their dreams which would introduce a broader range of knowledge and ideas when developing STEM innovations.
How Big Is the Gender Gap?
Men outnumber women in STEM professions. Women comprise:
35.2% of chemists are women;
11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women;
33.8% of environmental engineers are women;
22.7% of chemical engineers are women;
17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women;
17.1% of industrial engineers are women;
10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women; and
7.9% of mechanical engineers are women
However, in some occupations, there is a relatively high share of women. In the social sciences, women account for 62 percent of the workforce. In biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences, they account for 48 percent. Several studies have found that these topics require more emotional labor and are therefore seen as more feminine pursuits.
In school, there is very little difference in involvement in STEM subjects for boys and girls. Female students perform as well as male studies on math and science standardized tests, and their enrollment rates in these subjects are also comparable. So, at what point are young women being discouraged from entering these fields professionally?
Are Gender Stereotypes to Blame?
Many women are deterred from entering the STEM workforce due to outdated stereotypes that still exist today. From toys that are targeted at boys to portrayals of STEM professionals in the media, women are led to believe that there is no place for them in this field.

“How it Works” by Randall Munroe illustrates the gender bias against women in STEM fields.

While more female scientists are being placed in the spotlight, profiles tend to focus more on the appearances of women. For example, coverage of 51 percent of female scientists referred to their hairstyles, clothing or body type while this was true for only 21 percent of male scientists. This downplays their professional achievements, so young women may be deterred from entering a field where their hard work will go unrecognized. It is just one of several gender biases at play among STEM professionals.
How Will We Close the Gap?
A better balance between male and female workers will encourage the STEM workforce to make greater technological and scientific strides. Studies have shown that knowledge in scientific fields expands when more women get involved, highlighting the power of collaboration between men and women in STEM fields.
To close the gap, the issue should be approached from various perspectives that will promote the advancement of women in STEM fields:

  1. Teachers and school administrators can play an important role in closing the gender gap in STEM fields, so K-12 curriculums should be reworked to foster an interest in technology among young female students. This should include hands-on science and technology workshops targeted at girls. It should also offer guidance for female students such as job shadowing, career fairs and guest lectures from accomplished women in these fields.
  2. Start young. Parents should work hard to encourage their children from a young age to follow their academic goals regardless of gender stereotypes. In fact, the Institution for Engineering and Technology recommends that toy manufacturers should make their technological toys more gender-neutral.
  3. Establish programs that encourage women to study STEM subjects at a post-secondary level and pursue careers in these fields. Organizations like the National Math and Science Initiative, Girl Geeks and Million Women Mentors help young women obtain the right tools, knowledge and experience to pursue careers in these fields.
  4. Use the media to highlight the achievements of female STEM professionals. A great example is Rachel Ignotofsky’s latest book, “Women in Science”, which profiles 50 female pioneers. As young women become aware of role models in science and technology, they will feel more comfortable entering these fields knowing that females can succeed in what are known to be dominated by males.

We can only close the gender gap in STEM by actively encouraging young women to pursue education and careers in these fields. It’s important for parents, educators and industry leaders to turn STEM into a more inclusive field, to build a more gender-balanced workforce that will result in greater scientific and technological advancements.
What do you think needs to be done to close the gender gap in STEM fields? Share your thoughts in the comments section!
Cassie is a technology blogger for Secure Thoughts, a leading cybersecurity resource. She has always had an interest in technology and wants to encourage other young girls to pursue their dreams of becoming STEM professionals to eventually close the field’s gender gap.