Despite the significant progress toward gender equity in the workplace that we’ve seen in recent decades, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has been consistently lagging behind. What’s even more worrying is the current trend showing a slight but steady decrease in women joining the STEM field since 2016, after decades of continued growth. That’s why the WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) initiative is more needed than ever.
Today, women comprise only 27% of professionals in science, tech, engineering, and math while representing 48% of the entire workforce, according to the U.S. Census. What’s interesting is that within STEM occupations, there is an uneven distribution, with near parity in natural sciences (46% of biological scientists and 40% of chemists are women) and a meager 18% in higher-paying and growing STEM areas of computer science and engineering. These, by themselves, are bleak numbers boding economic inequality, yet matters are worsened by the gender pay gap, which is more significant in STEM than average. According to Pew Research Center, in 2022, women earned an average of 82% of what men of the same qualification earned, while in STEM, this number is 74%.
It’s important to point out that the workplace statistics that tech companies publish might give an optimistic but biased picture to the public. While the rate of women working at tech companies like Google or Meta is closer to parity, the rate of women working within these companies in lucrative tech roles, such as developers, data analysts, engineers, etc., is much lower and, unfortunately, declining. We must admit that in our own company, this is true as well: a woman at WowEssays is much more likely to work as an essay writer, editor, or customer care agent than a developer. It’s evident that hiring efforts aren’t enough to close this gap since girls are tracked away from this career path much earlier than they begin applying for jobs. When exactly does this happen, and what can be done about it?
Barriers to Women and Girls in STEM
There are two main points where the number of women striving for a career in STEM decreases significantly: when entering college and after graduation. For example, just 26% of STEM college students are women, which translates into 24% of the female workforce in STEM. This shows that although some work needs to be done to encourage young female graduates to pursue STEM careers after the graduation, the primary efforts should be focused on encouraging girls to study math, chemistry, and physics-based subjects.
It is essential to understand why so few girls choose these subjects. Here are some of the main reasons:
- Parents don’t encourage girls to pursue STEM interests as much as boys
STEM fields are often seen as masculine, so parents begin to treat their children’s aptitudes and interests differently as early as preschool. For instance, they talk more  about spatial relations with their sons than their daughters and use spatial language more with boys.
It is also illustrative that parents from affluent families  with more resources tend to believe  boys are more capable in math and science than girls. This leads them to invest in their sons’ interests more than their daughters’. In contrast, the girls from low-income families, where no such bias in parents was found, tend to do better in math tests than boys from low-income families. Due to a lack of opportunities, however, this doesn’t translate into more girls entering college to study STEM fields.
- Teachers tend to underestimate girls’ math abilities
Lower expectations and internalized stereotypes contribute to the achievement gap early in K12. Although no difference in math aptitude is detected in elementary school, girls develop “math anxiety” after being subjected to teachers’ bias. For example, teachers grade girls harder for the same work as boys and assume girls need to work harder  to achieve the same level of aptitude as boys.
The notion of the “math brain” is one of the most harmful myths in American education. Research after research shows no innate cognitive differences between men and women in math. Yet teachers perpetuate this myth, fostering math confidence in boys while inflicting anxiety on girls. As a result, girls self-assess  their math abilities lower than boys with equal achievements. At the same time, boys are more likely to say  they are good at math by the 2nd grade – several years before any performance gap becomes evident.
- Absence of role models for girls in STEM
Since fewer women work in STEM, girls and young women don’t see examples of female engineers and scientists in books and popular culture, don’t have role models to inspire them to pursue STEM careers, and don’t have mentors when they do enter the workforce, regardless of all the obstacles.
Studies suggest that if girls had as many role models and inspiring examples of inventors and researchers as boys, the gender gap could be cut in half.
- Male-dominated culture in STEM colleges
The UK-based study polling female and non-binary students majoring in STEM found that 57% of respondents said they suffered from the imposter syndrome, with many highlighting that this stemmed from feeling like “the odd one out.”
Unfortunately, this feeling cannot be attributed simply to being in the minority. Girls experience more frequent harassment and devaluing biases in STEM compared to other fields both on campus and later professionally. Girls share stories when professors would say things like, “I’ll explain again for the sake of the ladies present.” At the same time, their classmates would ask them whether they enrolled only to secure a “rich Zuckerberg-type husband.” Jokes and attitudes would be obscenely obnoxious and sexist, reminiscent of a frat house party. One can only imagine the toll such toxic culture takes on young women’s mental health and confidence.
- Exclusionary culture persists in the profession
When women finally join the STEM workforce, they enter male-dominated spaces with inflexible, exclusionary cultures. In scholarly pursuits, they receive less credit  for their work and fewer citations than male peers in the same field do, hence find it difficult to advance and remain in junior positions.
In IT companies, the big part of the problem is the tech industry’s “bro culture,” rife with misogyny and bias, that perpetuates itself by valuing overconfidence and risk-taking over actual skill and diligence during recruiting. This type of hiring is often described as “self-selecting for people like you,” which precludes any kind of positive dynamic towards diversity – gender, ethnic, cultural, or any other.
Many exclusionary policies do not look biased on the surface but affect women more than men. For example, a lack of parental leave results in 43% of women in STEM leaving their full-time job within 4-7 years of having their first child, compared to 23% of men.
What Can Be Done?
To close the STEM gender gap, complex measures must be undertaken by parents, educators, and society at large.
- Raise awareness
As parents, we should make girls aware that they are as capable as boys and emphasize female role models in math and science. As educators, we must give girls equal encouragement and opportunities, as well as communicate with parents, teaching them how they can encourage their daughters to pursue their STEM curiosities.
- Promote growth mindset
Instead of perpetuating the “math brain” myth, we should promote a growth mindset – a notion that math skills are acquired just like any other skills instead of being a static “ability.” Math skills can be exercised and change over time.
- Support girls throughout K12
Professional development for teachers must be implemented to address biases and ensure girls and boys are held to the same standards. Schools should also ensure that every student, regardless of gender, is exposed to engineering and computer science, including after-school and summer opportunities.
- Attract more girls into STEM majors
Schools should prioritize diverse and inclusive environments, reduce and prevent on-campus sexual harassment by ensuring accountability, design courses to be more welcoming for women and promote mentorship, networking, and male ally programs.
- Optimize hiring, retention, and promotion of women in STEM industries
Companies should create welcoming work environments by implementing pay equity, introducing family and medical leave policies, and flexibility. Another focus should be placed on anti-biased training and robust anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Workplace training, mentorship programs, and advancement opportunities are another step to gender equity in STEM.
What Can YOU Do?
Girls are systematically tracked away from high-paying careers in STEM. With so many barriers, how can they succeed? While these challenges cannot be overcome single-handedly, there are steps they can take to increase their chances of success.
- School choice
When selecting a college, look for those that take a student-centered approach, prioritize equity, emphasize a supportive environment, and offer resources specifically for girls aspiring for STEM careers. Not only are such colleges more likely to provide a nurturing environment for you, but they also have more women among the faculty who can support you and be your role models and mentors.
- Research scholarships
Apart from a school with a supportive environment, look out for scholarships to help you shoulder the tuition fees. Scholarships often target underrepresented groups – and women in STEM, especially in computer science and engineering, are definitely one such group.
- Prioritize networking
When you enter college, get networking: connect with your peers, faculty members, and alums. Creating ties in the professional community early in college will help you find mentors and advance in your career.
- Pay it forward
As you reach a decision-making role in STEM, become a mentor for a younger protégé within your company or a student in your alma mater. Helping young STEM professionals to reach their potential is the best way to change the status quo – one step at a time.
Women in science and technology have a long history they were consistently written out of. Without women, STEM wouldn’t be where it is today. There would be no nuclear power without Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, and many “Calutron girls.” Humanity wouldn’t unveil the mystery of the genes without Nettie Stevens or the DNA structure without Rosalind Franklin. Without Nancy Grace, there would be no Hubble telescope, and we would know nothing about pulsars without Jocelyn Bell Burnell. There would be no programming without Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Edith Clarke, and many others.
Their contributions and achievements were dismissed, forgotten, and misattributed over and over. Simply by telling their stories to young girls today, we can make a difference – not merely for gender equity in STEM but for the sake of humankind.