Women in STEM

Katherine Morfill ’18 – Women in Leadership

On March 23, 2015, a Google Doodle featured the 113th birthday of Emmy Noether, one of the most influential mathematicians of the past century. Born in Germany, Noether was discouraged from receiving a college-level education and from teaching at various universities. Noether overcame the obstacles associated with being a woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in the twentieth century and today receives admiration for the brilliant and underpaid contributions she made to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. The advancement of women in STEM fields remains prevalent today more than ever. Recently, a new research report, published by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), noted that more girls and women than ever before are studying in the STEM field. However, those gains are not being reflected in the workforce; and Janet Bandows Koster, CEO of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), gave an interview discussing the cultural practices preventing the growth of women in STEM.

The AAUW report, Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing asks why there are persistently so few women in engineering and computing and offers an explanation as to how we can make these fields more open and desirable for both sexes. The report found that the number of women in computing has fallen from 35 percent in 1990 to just 26 percent today. To make matters worse, the number of women in engineering is only at 12 percent. The report also found that more qualified women are leaving the STEM workforce despite the rising demand for their skills and the flexibility for balancing work-life issues that STEM occupations offer. Furthermore, there is a major issue that there are still stereotypes and biases discouraging women from pursuing STEM careers, both early in their education and in the workplace.

These gender biases are shaped by stereotypes found in mainstream culture. As Koster of the AWIS says in her interview, “Progress has been slow, but cultural change is difficult.” Constant vigilance is necessary to keep women progressing in STEM. Koster has seen that when gender biases are not actively challenged, they can revert back to their male-dominated tendencies. Even older members of the AWIS, do not see the problems that young women are facing today. One of the biggest issues, Koster says, is that, “a lot of people think that there are no more problems for women.” Recognizing roadblocks and pushing past them is imperative for the continuing advancement of women in STEM.

One of the most persistent stereotypes is the idea that boys are naturally better at math and science than girls are, and a study in the AAUW report found that this bias makes employers more likely to hire a male rather than a female candidate for science and mathematics jobs, regardless of their qualifications. In order to increase the number of girls pursuing careers in STEM fields and to retain the current workforce of women in STEM, stereotypes and biases such as these need to be confronted head-on.

The presence of women in STEM is important. Workplace diversity promotes innovation and productivity. Both sexes bring different experiences to the table, and their equal representation provides new perspectives and ideas. It is estimated that in less than 10 years, the United States will need 1.7 million more engineers and computing professionals. Discouraging the talent of half the population to explore these fields is not something we can afford to continue to do. Retaining a skilled workforce starts with making the workplace accommodating and desirable to both sexes. As we move closer towards gender equality in STEM fields, these stereotypes and biases will break down as more and more women will prove to be role models for girls wanting to pursue STEM. Just as we look back on the advancement of influential STEM women like Emmy Noether, we should be looking forward to the next generations of STEM women who will do great work.