6 Reasons for Closing the Gender Gap in STEM
By Ryan Ayers
These days, it's somewhat unusual to find women working in many of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields. Physics, computer science, and engineering are three of the least diverse fields, and the lack of women entering these fields is only perpetuating the persistent gender gap in STEM. This isn't for lack of interest. Many girls show interest in STEM in the early years of their education, but often pull away from these fields as they enter high school at college.
Because of this, many organizations are working to close the gap and bring more women into the STEM fields. Organizations like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and others are encouraging girls to follow their interests and become innovators in these male-dominated fields. But why does it matter? Why should we worry about the gender gap in STEM fields? Here are just 6 reasons we should work together to close the gender gap in STEM-before it gets worse.
1. Uneven representation
The main reason we need to continue closing the gender gap in STEM is that the representation in this field is very uneven as compared to the population as a whole. While it's true that many fields are more male or female dominated than others, very few are as divisive as STEM fields. This can lead to diversity problems and talent shortages. After all, women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, but only 24% of the STEM workforce. The uneven representation of workers in STEM has only continued to perpetuate stereotypes, making the cycle difficult to break. Where women are represented in STEM, they are mostly concentrated within the social, biological, and medical sciences, not computer science or engineering.
2. The gap has widened and worsened over the years
The gender gap in STEM is especially troubling because it has become wider over the years. Women pioneered many of the technologies we use on an everyday basis, like the first algorithm, the first programming languages, and the first code compiler, yet they're scarcely seen in this field anymore. Just over 30 years ago, in 1984, women represented 37% of all computer science graduates. Today, that number stands at just 18%. How large will the gap grow if we don't make an effort to close it?
3. Leverage the power of diversity
Aside from the fact that women are just as competent as men in STEM fields, the power of diversity is undeniable. Diverse teams have been shown to be more creative and innovative, which has multiple positive benefits for the companies they work for-and can increase the team's overall satisfaction.
Not only does diversity help promote creativity and innovation by arming the team with diverse skills, outlooks, and perspectives, having women on STEM teams can help increase revenue for companies. Researchers have studied this phenomenon, and found that the diversity factor was so strong in determining revenue that offices with an even split among male and female employees were associated with a 41% revenue increase over all-male or all-female offices. With numbers like that, it's clear that closing the gender gap is important for boosting our economic growth.
4. Provide equal opportunity for rising industries
STEM industries are hot right now, and they're some of the fastest-growing industries in modern society. Jobs in computer science, engineering, and other fields are some of the most lucrative career paths available, and the number of positions needing to be filled is only going to grow. By 2020, 1.4 million jobs requiring computer skills will be created. While US graduates are on track to fill 29% of these jobs, women are on track to fill only 3%. This disparity prevents many women from reaching economic equality with men, making it harder for women to earn a comparable salary in other fields.
5. Help removes unconscious bias
Unfortunately, we're all subject to unconscious bias, and a lot of it has to do with the stereotypes we see around us. Even female scientists are not immune to this effect, as one woman found after taking Harvard's implicit bias test. After taking the test, she realized that she was tougher on female scientists than on their male peers. While knowing about one's own biases doesn't fix them immediately, the knowledge can help bring additional awareness and improve decision-making to become more neutral and impartial.
6. Encourage younger girls to break social barriers
The gender gap begins in the classroom, when girls begin to receive signals that they are not welcome in STEM fields. These signals can be very subtle, but their pressure intensifies as girls move through school. To illustrate this, we see a dramatic drop in girls' interest in STEM as they enter high school, and again in college. 66% of 6-12 year old girls were interested in computer science and STEM, but by the age of 13-17, the number drops to 32%. Only 4% of girls are interested in STEM by the time they are college freshmen. This drop is partially due to social barriers that start to pop up for girls as they get older, and social pressures cause them to abandon their interest in STEM.
We must change the way we view women in STEM and encourage women of all ages to stand up to these pressures and follow their true interests-no matter what those may be. We need to send the signal to girls everywhere that it's okay to be interested in STEM-for the good of our economy, women, and the country as a whole.