U.S. Makes Progress in Stemming the Deficit of Women in STEM, But Work Remains
SIGNAL Media today launches a multi-month project to highlight women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, most commonly referred to as STEM. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1984, women earned 37 percent of college degrees in STEM fields. Fast-forward 26 years, the number had dropped to just 12 percent. SIGNAL and AFCEA International’s Women in AFCEA seek to learn why.
A recruiter once told Nancy Brown her desire to join the Navy just wasn’t worth the effort. Not the time to complete the required paperwork or endeavors to appeal to the powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., that a woman would make a good sailor.
“The recruiter told me that the Navy wouldn't take me because I was a woman with a social sciences degree.”
The year was 1974 and, as a graduate of Stephens College in Missouri with a degree in history, she was having a hard time finding a job. Her father, an aviator who had flown for the Navy during World War II, suggested the Navy.
To the recruiter, she insisted the Navy was right for her.
Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, USN (Ret.) not only was accepted to officer candidate school, but went on to serve 35 years in the male-dominated communications field, retiring as a three star after serving as director of Command, Control, Communications and Computer (C4) systems on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The biggest challenge was the same one that some women face today—and that is you're the only woman in the room,” Adm. Brown says. An increasingly diversified U.S. work force is not reflected in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, better known as STEM. Women comprise nearly half of the work force, but just 24 percent of workers in STEM fields. Moreover, white men make up 30 percent of the nation’s population, yet more than 50 percent of the STEM jobs.
And here is a statistic that Adm. Brown said she not only finds staggering, but disheartening: An American Association of University Women analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey data found that overall, women in computer and mathematical occupations were paid 87 percent of what male counterparts were paid. In engineering and architecture, women earned 82 percent.
Those statistics notwithstanding, there are more than 500,000 unfilled jobs in information technology across all sectors of the economy, “reinforcing the notion that computer science has become a basic requisite for 21st century jobs,” according to a White House document on the status of STEM jobs in the United States. Experts forecast that in two years, there could be as many as 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs.
The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, in collaboration with the White House Council on Women and Girls, aims to increase the participation of women and girls, in addition to other minority groups underrepresented in STEM-related fields, by increasing engagement in formal and informal environments; encouraging mentoring to support women throughout academic and professional experiences; and supporting efforts to retain women in the STEM work force.
And yet, many women leave the field early in their careers after earning STEM-related degrees. A 2014 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, for example, reported that women leave STEM jobs 45 percent more often after their rookie years than men for reasons that range from the need to care for children to the realization that they are underpaid, under-appreciated and under-recognized for their work. Others report having to give up their identity while others note it is simply too hard to pursue careers where there is a lack of female peers. “It’s an issue still today because it is important to get the best talent, especially in computer security and the IT field today,” offers Adm. Brown, 63, who retired with her husband to an agricultural farm in Illinois and is raising her 8-month-old shar-pei, Maggie. “We’re not getting that. It is important to have mentors and role models—because when you don’t, it might not occur to you to stay in that field. If it's a male-dominated field, issues in the workplace sometimes are enough to discourage you from staying.”
While it’s important to have women mentors, it is particularly important for women in STEM to find peers who have like experience in the field, she advises. “It’s good to have someone as a mentor who has lived in that field, who will help you walk in her shoes. If you’re not in the STEM profession, I think you're still a good mentor to someone who is trying to stay in STEM, but a role model in your field—it's definitely something that you need.”
Adm. Brown found that needed mentorship in Capt. Jane Renninger, USN, (Ret.), when they worked together in San Diego. “She really played an extremely important role in my career,” Adm. Brown shares. “I really learned what being an officer in the United States Navy and wearing the uniform meant working for her. I'm positive I would not have stayed in the Navy if it had not been for her.”
As Capt. Renninger did for her, she seeks to do for others. “I've tried very hard to be a mentor and to be available if somebody wanted to advice or just wanted to talk.
“Fortunately I had a personality that allowed me to deal with [working in a male-dominated field.] I was confident enough in myself that I could get along and not feel insecure because I was the only woman.”
Why is it that in 2016, after many prominent women blazed trails for equality in a number of disciplines, we’re still talking about this? “Why are we still talking about any of these issues? We haven't solved them,” Adm. Brown says. “I think we've made progress, but we haven't solved them.
“Men aren’t necessarily eager to embrace women, something I have never really understood—especially today. Most young men grew up with their mothers working, and I would think would have much more equal view of women in the workplace. It just doesn't seem to have changed that much,” she continued.
Join us for AFCEA's first women's panel. "Why Are Women Leaving STEM?" begins at 1:30 p.m. on August 3 in the Engagement Theater at TechNet Augusta. The conversation continues during a networking reception immediately following the session courtesy of panel sponsors Walker and Associates and Ciena.