The Often-Overlooked Women of STEM
And the need for more women in science, tech, engineering and math
With an increased reliance on technology, education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) will be even more crucial to help shape how the world works. The outlook for STEM employment is far outpacing non-STEM job growth, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women, however, hold less than a quarter of STEM positions.
The business case for a more diverse workforce in STEM is strong. A study conducted by Dow Jones Venture Source of 20,000 venture backed companies found successful startups have twice as many women in senior positions compared with unsuccessful companies. Women also delivered higher revenues for tech companies while using 30 to 50 percent less capital. In startups, women were more likely to survive the transition from startup to established business than their male counterparts.
So why are girls and women hesitant to go down a STEM path? And when they do, why are they recognized less often than male counterparts? These questions are examined here, plus tips for educators, parents and employers to encourage women’s participation in STEM.
With strong on-the-job performance and good employment opportunities, women’s progress in STEM fields is still lagging. Here are a few possible reasons:
Educational discrepancy. Male dominated participation in STEM opportunities start at a young age. Fortunately, there are now efforts to encourage more girls into STEM career paths. Organizations such as Microsoft, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are encouraging girl’s participation in STEM education. However, education is just part of the puzzle.
Confidence could be an issue. Research reported in the Global Leadership Forecast shows no significant skill gap between women and men, yet women underrate themselves in digital knowledge and technology skills when scoring themselves. This suggests lower self-assurance by women, not lower skills.
Women’s confidence gap may bring a little humility to the management team, pausing to consider other viewpoints. This is valuable in situations such as a tech startup, where unchecked confidence can lead to overestimating short-term wins as a sustainable market advantage.
Lack of women at the top. Since many STEM oriented companies are still male-dominated, women may feel less support, especially when seeking leadership roles or advancement.
With fewer women in technology leadership roles there are less female role models, mentors and sponsors to encourage women to advance in their careers. This creates a loop of sorts, keeping biases in place and women out of leadership positions.
Solutions for women in STEM
Businesses would be well served to balance their male dominated leadership roles. Women outpace their male counterparts in leadership skills, said a recent study of 7,280 leaders by the Harvard Business Review. If you think women excel at nurturing competencies such as team building and developing others, you are right. They also receive high marks for integrity and self-development. What may be a surprise is that they were ranked far better overall leaders than men when rated by their peers, bosses and direct reports.
Another solution is for companies to seek out balanced opportunities when providing mentoring to employees that want to move up in STEM roles.
In education, some of the current focus is on incorporating girls into tech roles involving tasks such as coding. Ironically, coding may be replaced by artificial intelligence. Microsoft is working on computer programs that learn a problem and write code to solve it. So perhaps the best opportunity for STEM oriented girls, in addition to technical training, is to tap into their future leadership potential.
Parents can encourage girls’ interest in STEM by sharing explorations of the natural world and signing up for a family membership at a science museum or technology center. Discuss some of the cool accomplishments of female stem leaders. Make sure your child is aware of STEM opportunities at school and in after school programs and clubs.
A changing workplace
Companies across all fields of business have come to appreciate the value of soft skills. To get a job one typically needs a repertoire of technical knowledge and experience, or hard skills. People skills are what open most of the doors to follow—the area where statistically women excel and men are still catching up. Problem solving, delegating and motivating are much easier with well-defined people skills.
As we continue to digitize and automate business processes, and increasingly work in distributed teams, the ability to lead inclusively and collaboratively will rise in value.
Companies with more women are more likely to introduce higher amounts of game-changing new products. Inclusion of diverse perspectives can aide a company’s growth and success. With encouragement, our girls and women will heighten their impact as leaders in science, technology, engineering and math.
To close, here are bios from a few female trailblazers that have made a mark in science, technology, engineering and math courtesy of internationalwomensday.com.
Ginni Rometty, CEO IBM
“An early compsci graduate in the 70’s, Rometty joined IBM as a systems engineer. When she became SVP Marketing & Strategy in 2009, she led IBM into cloud computing, analytics, and the commercialisation of IBM Watson. She has been IBM’s CEO since 2012.”
Katherine Johnson, NASA Space Scientist
“Born in 1918, Katherine Johnson, graduated from university at 18. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 for a lifetime of work as a pioneering physicist, mathematician and space scientist. She and her colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson did the calculations that guided NASA’s 1962 Friendship 7 Mission. A teacher and research mathematician, she co-authored over 25 scientific papers. Can you imagine how rare this brainy young teen was, entering West Virginia State College in 1932? About as unique as an African American woman scientist at NASA in the 1950s. She was both—making her the rarest of the rare!”
Irene Au, Human Computer Interaction Designer
“Irene Au created her own program of study in human-computer interaction. She built exceptional design teams for Google and Yahoo before joining Khosla Ventures as an Operating Partner.”
Barbara McClintock, Geneticist
“Barbara McClintock is the only woman to have received, by herself, a Nobel Prize for Medicine. She won the Nobel in 1983 for work that began with her discovery 40 years earlier, that genetic material is not fixed but instead is fluid. James Watson credited her genetic insights as part of his discovery of DNA. In her biography, A Feeling for the Organism, she connected new scientific and feminist perspectives. Her students adopted her mindset that science is open ended and unresolved. Dr. McClintock felt it was important to put in the caveat “this is what we know” in scientific assertions, implicitly reminding us that so much is not yet known.”