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Gender Gap Hinders STEM Innovation

August 25, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower Lilly

Although women make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. work force, they fill less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA). The unequal share of women in STEM is particularly apparent in the engineering field, where only one out of every seven engineers is female. This vast gender gap restricts the United States in the global race for a high-tech work force.

The report, “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” found that while the work force comprises 48 percent women, they hold just 24 percent of STEM jobs. At the undergraduate level, 2.5 million women hold STEM degrees compared with 6.7 million men. Among those degree holders, women are less likely than their male counterparts to work in related careers. Instead, women often move to education or health care professions.

In addition, while the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM jobs than in other fields, a discrepancy still exists. For each dollar earned by a man in a STEM role, a woman earns 14 cents less.

One of the most surprising trends found in the report is that the gender gap shows no signs of closing, says Mark Doms, chief economist for the Commerce Department. Women’s share of the STEM work force remained consistent at 24 percent between 2000 and 2009 despite an overall increase in college-educated females. While the White House has placed a large emphasis on increasing overall interest in STEM, Doms relates that the numbers still show a pronounced and persistent gender gap.

Dr. Linda Rosen is chief executive officer of Change the Equation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative focused on solving innovation problems in the United States. She argues that the gender gap begins early in life when stereotypes form during elementary school. These stereotypes are particularly present in the mathematics field, which Rosen calls the root discipline of all the STEM fields. “Girls do not self-identify as being good at math, even when their achievement levels as shown by tests indicate that they are,” explains Rosen. “If you’re not thinking of yourself in that frame of reference, you lose interest even when you have the talent and the knowledge.”

A lack of female role models in STEM positions also contributes to the issue, says Rosen. What children observe most frequently in their lives impacts the knowledge they gain about the world, she notes, and visual data tells them that males dominate the STEM careers. Rosen relates this effect to the number of male doctors and female nurses in pediatricians’ offices. These images unintentionally reinforce gender roles and send “not so subtle” messages to young children.

Implications of the STEM gender gap reach across the nation and the globe. Without women in these career fields, “We’ve got a real work force issue,” says Rosen. Military, government and industry groups often require U.S. citizens to fill specialized positions, and they cannot rely on bringing in talent from overseas. Without a competitive work force and a diverse pool of educated employees, the United States will become less competitive on a global scale.  

While Rosen says the push for more women in STEM must come from all angles, she argues that the problem is societal and not legislative. Harmful gender stereotypes form during childhood, which makes educators, school administrators and parents crucial to fighting the innovation gap. Teachers and guidance counselors may unintentionally show bias against female students regarding STEM disciplines, and Rosen asserts that more training and awareness could help educators overcome stereotypes and engage both genders equally. In addition, female STEM professionals must step up as role models to show young girls examples of success in the field, Rosen remarks. 

Doms agrees that the STEM push must start with adolescents, and he calls the ESA report an important first step toward educating the public. “We don’t want to write an 80-page technical document,” states Doms. “We try to provide facts so that we can all be on the same playing field when we talk about these issues.” Doms says he hopes the report puts concrete numbers on stereotypes that already existed.

The AFCEA International Educational Foundation offers two scholarships aimed at increasing diversity in the STEM fields. The $5,000 Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely Jr., USN (Ret.), Memorial Scholarship, sponsored by AMERICAN SYSTEMS Incorporated, is awarded to undergraduate students attending historically black colleges and universities and majoring in STEM subjects. In addition, the $3,000 Ralph W. Shrader Diversity Scholarship, established by Booz Allen Hamilton, annually honors at least two minority and women graduate students with STEM majors.