The US Department of Commerce has released new data on the gender gap in science and technology and its economic impact on women.
According to the study, released at the start of the month, women hold almost half of all jobs in the US, but less than 25 per cent of positions in science, technology, engineering and math (Stem). This is despite the fact that women in Stem jobs earn 33 per cent more, on average, than those in other fields.
The data show that of all those who study Stem at university, women are less likely to pursue jobs in these fields. Of men with a Stem degree, 40 per cent work in science and technology, compared with only 26 per cent of female graduates.
Andresse St Rose, a research associate at the American Association of University Women, has done research on challenges that girls and women face in studying and working in Stem fields. She says the gender gap begins at a very early age.
“Early on, little boys and young girls express similar interest in Stem, but they receive different messages about whether it’s an appropriate field to pursue. That affects their interest,” she says. “Boys also get more informal exposure to Stem based on their activities − they tend to want to tinker with cars, bikes and mechanical things, and play with computers and smartphones more.”
Even though girls take more math and science classes than boys at secondary-school level − and tend to get higher grades on average than boys – when they head off to university, the number of women in Stem classes drops.
“The environment in college Stem classrooms is often a deterrent to women. Stereotypes abound and they don’t feel welcome. Women also feel isolated particularly in fields like engineering, where they may be only one of two women in the room.”
What is the solution? St Rose says active recruitment of women by college Stem departments would help. Young women also need to be exposed to possible Stem career paths that they might find appealing.
“In many cases Stem departments don’t actively recruit students,” she says. “They wait to see who shows up on their doorsteps. But we need to see more active outreach for women.
“Also, women are more likely than men to say they want to work in a field that is personally fulfilling and makes a difference, so they are often advised to go into traditionally female occupations such as social work or teaching. But a lot of stem fields – such as engineering and biomedical research − are also helpful to society.”
St Rose adds that universities must also become more mindful about the life choices of juggling the demands of work and family that all young people – but particularly women – face. Positive role models are crucial.
“Women see an especially large wage premium in the Stem fields, so the direct economic impact for women who get a Stem degree and then don’t choose a Stem career is, in general, worrying. To have women in leadership roles in this industry is so important because they will become role models and mentors for [the next generation.] This will help increase the pool of women overall.”