Broken STEMs

Universities should encourage women to pursue degrees STEM fields, in order to promote scientific advancement in the U.S.

The University recently received $3 million from the National Science Foundation to promote women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—fields. The significance of the grant lies not in its monetary value but rather what it represents: the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. While society has made great strides in achieving equality for women in the job sector, STEM still remains an area where women have remained underrepresented consistently for decades.

The Economic and Statistics Administration under the U.S. Department of Commerce indicates that nationally, 52 percent of all jobs consist of men while 48 percent consists of women, so more or less 50/50. Yet, only 24 percent of women are in STEM fields, while 76 percent of men are in STEM fields. General efforts have been undertaken to increase the number of women in STEM fields such as at the graduate and doctoral level here at the University.

There are multiple factors that leads to underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Research indicates that girls often lack confidence in math and science, and undermine their own achievement in those areas. Further research indicates that girls perceive such fields to be inappropriate for their gender. In fact, there is a common psychological association that ties men with science, and women with the arts. Another factor is the lack of female role models in STEM fields. Because women are underrepresented in STEM, girls are less exposed to female engineers or computer scientists. Lack of role models leads to lack of encouragement of girls to pursue fields like engineering. Women already in the field are often isolated and feel unwelcome. As a result, they often leave.

But, why is this important? Why do we need greater representation of women in STEM fields? Women are necessary in STEM fields to sustain, or even exceed, our innovative potential as a nation. A 2007 study conducted by the National Center for Women and Information Technology indicates that mixed male and female teams were 26 percent to 46 percent more likely that normal to produce patents. A male only team produced the least amount of patents.

Another study also published in 2007, by the London Business School which looked at 100 teams at 21 companies in 17 countries, indicated that teams consisting an even distribution of male and females have a tendency to be more innovative. Increased female representation in STEM would allow for greater diversity in ideas and development. Historically, without female participation, some early technology such as the voice recognition technologies were developed for male voices only. Similarly, early airbag technology was also developed to accommodate for men because there were predominately male engineers developing the technology.

Furthermore, there has been concern in the United States that perhaps we are falling behind in innovation. We have made less and less innovative strides in the past decades, and our patent applications has decreased. One of the ways to fight that problem, as evidenced, is to have more women in the field.

There are also benefits for women themselves. The wage gaps between men and women are fairly well known. In non-STEM fields, the gap is 21 percent. Yet, in STEM fields, the gap is 14 percent for full time workers (keeping variables such as age and education consistent). Plus, women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, providing even more incentives for women to pursue STEM careers.

But, despite the benefits of having more women in STEM fields, the problem of underrepresentation still persists. Universities can play a significant role in fighting this underrepresentation. There has to be greater initiative and efforts made by universities that encourage women to pursue STEM careers. According to the National Science Foundation, only about 15 percent of females entering college plan to pursue STEM fields versus 29 percent of males. And even if women do pursue a STEM major in college, they are more likely to pursue education or healthcare fields rather than a STEM job specifically. As a result, universities need to play a greater role in promoting STEM fields to women. Greater attention has to be given in recruiting women in STEM majors, retaining them in those majors and then helping them find opportunities in STEM careers.

Fariha Kabir’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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