Despite gains overall, women are still under-represented in leadership positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The number of women in science and engineering is growing, yet men continue to outnumber women, especially at the upper levels of these professions. In elementary, middle, and high school, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, and about as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college. Yet fewer women than men pursue these majors. Among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace.
Diversity in the STEM workforce varies widely across jobs
While there has been significant progress for women in the life and physical sciences since 1990, the share of women has been roughly stable in other STEM occupational clusters and has actually gone down 7 percentage points in the area with the largest job growth over this period: computer occupations, a job cluster that includes computer scientists, systems analysts, software developers, information systems managers and programmers.
Gains in women’s representation in STEM jobs have been concentrated among women holding advanced degrees, although women still tend to be underrepresented among such workers.
The reasons about half of college-educated workers with STEM-related training turn to jobs elsewhere are likely complicated. Some may have found their skills and training to be applicable to and rewarded in a non-STEM occupation (such as banking or finance). But for others, there may be barriers to entry into STEM jobs in addition to obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field.
Even so, among college-educated workers, women who majored in computer science or related computer fields are less likely than men trained in those fields to be working in computer jobs. Similarly, women who majored in engineering are less likely than men to be working in engineering jobs. Thus, in two occupational clusters with particularly low shares of women, retention of those who appear to meet a key requirement for job entry appears to be lower for women than for men.
Starting now, you should aim to over-communicate with everyone on your team, so nothing gets misunderstood or misinterpreted. Set up routine meetings with your manager and any colleagues working on ongoing projects with you (even if they are only brief check-ins).
No matter where you are on the chain, you can work on this. Do you excel at written reports, but clam up when it’s time to speak during a meeting? Alternatively, are you a natural when it comes to conversation—but secretly worried that your lack of grammar know-how will hold you back?
Instead of relying on your strong suit, beef up whatever area of your communication skills is lacking. It will make you a more valuable employee now, and a better leader later.
Discrimination, Prejudice and Bias
Do women and men prejudge women’s leadership abilities? Are they biased in favor of men and against women as leaders? There are two main types of research looking into the idea of discrimination and bias in this area. The first type of study is the correlational study: how do women’s salaries compare to men, based on various factors? How do women’s advancement rates compare to men’s, taking into account performance? These sorts of studies have demonstrated that even when background factors are accounted for, women still advance slower and are paid less than men. Another type of study is the experimental case, where biases are examined in a laboratory setting, often involving college students. In these clinical studies, both men and women exhibit biases against women as leaders (Eagly and Johnson 1990). Eagly and Carli (2007) provide a thorough review of the literature, and conclude that biases do exist and are a particularly difficult obstacle.
Given the importance of science and technology to national economies and success (e.g. Rising Above the Gathering Storm, National Academy of Sciences, 2007 and Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited, National Academy of Sciences, 2010), the governement in all part of the world needs to be promoting STEM and STEM education to everyone. It cannot afford to turn away talented and interested individuals. Not only are women needed in these fields, women are needed to be leaders in these areas both for their own sakes and to serve as role models for the next generation of women in STEM. The lack of research on women’s leadership in STEM is itself one more barrier to overcome in pursuit of the critically important goal of truly equitable participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.