Despite many of the blatant barriers and biases being removed from STEM fields, the number of women in STEM remains low. What are some of the next-level biases that still need to be addressed, and how can this bias be overcome?
It’s hard to argue that women are being excluded from educational opportunities. According to the Wall Street Journal, women of all backgrounds outnumber men in college courses – the Fall 2021 enrollment numbers show that it’s 59.5% women to just 40% men in the incoming class. And yet, despite having achieved parity and beyond at the starting line, women are not equally represented in the overall workforce and certainly not in STEM fields.
The latest numbers show that despite out performing men globally on scientific tests (per Yale), women represent just 29% of STEM workers. A mere one in five STEM board positions are held by women, and less than 3% of STEM industry CEOs identify as female as of January 2021. Clearly, despite massive forward progress in some areas, something is pushing women away from the field in general and leadership positions in particular.
What’s going on? In the paragraphs ahead, some of the modern biases impacting women in STEM fields will be examined. The aim is to increase understanding of the remaining biases holding women back from participating more fully in STEM work.
Women Are First To Opt Out (And The Reasons Are Complicated)
A first point of contention is what happens to women who study STEM. This pre-career phase is critical. Women who drop out of STEM training programs or switch to other majors in college rarely return to the field, even if they go on to have successful careers in other areas. According to the National Science Foundation, some 49.2% -- nearly half! – of all women who enter college pursuing STEM switch to a non-STEM program prior to graduation.
What’s driving the departure? There may be three factors in play, according to an in-depth study from Frontiers in Psychology.
Basically, women aren’t idiots. Even as students they can see their male compatriots getting more recognition for similar work, being offered more prominent or lucrative roles despite equal qualification, and being treated as “more suited” for the work at hard by hiring teams that purport to be gender-neutral. Knowing that they are likely facing a strong uphill battle simply to be fairly heard and fairly paid their entire careers, women choose to switch to other fields.
It’s frustrating that this continues to happen, especially in Western educational systems that have a strong focus on female achievement. Further, many of these behaviors, while overt in sum, occur as a series of individualized micro-moments (aggression is too strong a term, really) that are hard to address on a case-by-case basis in real time. And it’s especially convicting of American systemic bias that the levels of women in STEM studies and the later workforce, on a percentage basis, are higher in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and the Arab States.
Costs/Benefit Analysis May Speed Career Departures For Women In All STEM Fields
In a Frontiers in Psychology study of 1,464 engineering women who had left the field, researchers found that while women generally enjoyed their work and felt they were making a positive difference, the math of the profession wasn’t working out for them. This included both compensation calculus and the life arithmetic of competing priorities.
Women in STEM make between $4,000 - $15,000 less, per year, than men in comparable positions. That’s math that doesn’t work. Similarly, women who had left the field reported that they often faced heavy workloads with murky advancement opportunities. Given the choice of grinding it out for decades for modest advancement or switching to careers with more available and abundant promotion opportunities, many women voted with their feet.
Further, many women noted the binary nature of options for STEM careers as a limiting factor in staying in the field. Unlike other professions, there were fewer positions that offered part-time or flex-time hours. Thus, it was full-time (and often overtime) or nothing. By switching to a more flexibly designed non-STEM career, 42% of women reported that they could maintain employment – even at 40-hour plus levels – during years where the need to serve as a parent or caregiver made rigid scheduling difficult.
Next-level Mentorship Could Be One Answer
When looking at the switching rates for STEM-inclined women, researchers found that one difference maker was the availability of a female mentor. Not any mentor – it needed to be another women.
Both in STEM fields and other occupations, research has consistently shown that a dedicated female “shadow network” that runs alongside public, mixed-gender networks can help women stay in careers longer. This network need not consist of senior-to-junior pairs, either. Instead, a more successful approach is a collaborative co-mentoring approach, where all the women in an organization can come together to support, encourage, and advise each other.
This kind of co-mentoring model is particularly well-suited to the current environment in STEM fields, where there’s a steep drop off in senior-level women that limits mixed level pairings. The 3% of women at the top can not should the full mentoring load for the 29% of women entering the field. Yet by working as a cohort, women can do more for each other.
Indeed, by encouraging women to navigate modern biases and modern workplace challenge with a public and “shadow” network, it is possible to create additional resiliency and push for fresh standards as a collective. Women can lift each other up in meetings to fix recognition bias and “credit gaps. They can provide clarity for advancement opportunities to fix pay gaps. Finally, they can provide support to push through burnout and schedule challenges. As a result, perhaps women all down the STEM chain can change the perception that there are better opportunities elsewhere for smart women and get more women entering the field to remain in STEM long-term