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How Can We Get More Women Involved in STEM Fields?

RP Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel
Energy & Environment
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There is an economic recovery happening, though it isn’t happening everywhere. Some localities and some skills are seeing much higher levels of job growth than others. Careers in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) are among the best these days.

Jobs in STEM-related fields grew by 17 percent last year compared to almost 10 percent for non-STEM careers, according to the U.S Department of Commerce. Those are good jobs too, paying 26 percent more than their non-STEM counterparts.

But those jobs are primarily going to men. According to a study performed by the National Science Foundation, even though 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are going to women, only 18 to 19 percent of those receiving degrees in computer science, engineering, and physics were women. There are higher concentrations of women in certain STEM fields with 58 percent of social scientists and 48 percent of those in biological and medical science.

This has translated into the job market: While women comprise 47 percent of the job market, only 12 percent of civil engineers and 7 percent of mechanical engineers are women. More women are environmental scientists (28 percent) and chemists (39 percent), but even these figures are disproportionate.

Many efforts are now underway to address this disparity. Some are local efforts to provide “STEM equity” tours of manufacturing businesses to high school girls like this initiative in Simi Valley, California, or a girls-only STEM program at a high school in Summit County, Colorado. A number of colleges are creating special programs to lure women into programs like this computer science program at Harvey Mudd.

Then there are social media outreach efforts like a Foursquare check-in from outer space, the brain child of NASA's Stephanie Schierholz.

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has made the construction of a STEM pipeline for girls and women a major pillar of its mission, which the organization pursues through research, creation of programs for girls, funding for female graduate students and lobbying their agenda at all levels of government.

The problem is apparently not only one of attracting women to STEM fields. Data from the Center for Talent and Innovation shows that in the U.S. women are 45 percent more likely than men to leave their STEM jobs within the first year. Among reasons given are: isolation, scarcity of sponsorship, inadequate feedback and hostile cultures.

Of course, there are many success stories as well. Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox chief technology officer, suggests: “Women should work in a company where they don’t need to be a trailblazer ... where other women have gone through a similar career path and the company supports work-life balance.”

She further advises: “Don’t be afraid to take on new opportunities, continuously educate yourself and work on challenging projects that make a difference to the world. Choose a project that you truly believe in so you love what you do.” This is the path that her daughter, an environmental engineer, has followed.

This April, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers will host the Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference in San Jose, California, which will focus on accelerating the careers of women already working in STEM fields to help them rise to higher levels. Vandebroek and numerous other high-ranking technical women and men will present.

Given the essential role that science and technology play in our society, it is critical that women’s voices be represented among those creating, directing and applying the advances that continue to come out of the laboratory. In many ways women are uniquely equipped to understand the implications of technology in society, and therefore no effort should be spared from including them in the process.

Additional resources: Women in Space database

Image credit: Rachel Haller: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

 

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