STEM jobs for women make economic sense

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Leaders in science and technology push for more visible female role models.

Leaders in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields of work are finally beginning to see positive change in the numbers of women in the industries.

Good news for a society in which the average social gamer is a 43 year-old woman, and women make up 55 per cent of Twitter users.

Karen Purcell, president of PK Electrical, an electrical design, engineering and consulting firm in Reno, Nevada, USA, and author of Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math said that she hopes her book is obsolete in ten years.

“The cultural bias is changing,” she said. “I think in a few years we’ll see more young women choosing STEM careers – and succeeding brilliantly at them.”

Brilliant they may be, but recent sexist comments following the unmasking of a popular science writer as female revealed continued entrenched stereotyping, despite the fact that women generally outperform men in education and account for nearly half of the UK’s workforce.

STEM industries clearly suffer from a lack of diversity, with only 5.3 per cent of working women employed in any science, engineering and technology (SET) jobs, compared to 31.3 per cent of all working men.

Dismayingly for the women who turn away from STEM careers, the pay gap is generally smaller in those jobs than in others.

In the United States, for example, women with STEM jobs earn 33 per cent more than women in comparable but non-STEM jobs.

Industry leaders agree that more needs to be done to help women take advantage of such benefits.

Two leaders in technology, entrepreneur Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, said, “If there is one place where women have the greatest chance to carve new paths toward a fulfilling life and career, it’s in tech.”

The advantage the tech industry has over others is that it ‘values flexibility and innovative thinking, working remotely is more acceptable than in other industries, younger generations raised with egalitarian values dominate technology start-ups, and the industry is ripe for on-the-job learning.’

Although, since Tsur and Belsky wrote in TechCrunch, an international debate started – and continues – over Yahoo Chief Executive Melissa Mayer’s decision to rescind home-working rights from the company’s employees.

In formal education, the numbers of women studying STEM subjects are beginning to creep towards the numbers of men.

Many graduate science programmes report near equality, and the numbers of female technology students currently make up 41 per cent of Harvard’s 2013 Computer Science majors.

Beyond education, consensus is growing about what more can be done to continue these advances.

STEM has long suffered from the stereotype of the solitary, socially-awkward man alone in a lab or behind a computer, and many see the image of their industry as one of three major obstacles in the path to equality.

Widespread lack of understanding of the creativity and collaboration that is part of a career in STEM, media-reinforced stereotypes, and the lack of high-profile female role models have been a powerful combination in the perpetuation of the disparity between genders.

Claire McNulty, Director of Science and Sustainability at the British Council, said, “We need to show that science can be applied to the issues that really make a difference.”

Jennifer Tour Chayes, distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New England, concurred.

She said, “The media portrays STEM careers as less collaborative and creative than those in the arts and humanities.

“However, each and every day, I get to be creative and collaborative doing science and envisioning new technologies.

“We need to amplify this message to everyone who doesn’t fit the standard STEM stereotype, and embrace people who can work collaboratively and design the future.”

Additionally, she said she was incredibly passionate about the interdisciplinary nature of STEM and was “constantly inspired by the opportunity to take insights from one discipline and use them to fuel discoveries in another.”

New research from FEM Inc and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center shows the ways in which media, particularly scripted TV shows, affect the gender gap in STEM fields of work.

The report concluded that the ‘evidence indicates that the existence of widespread, negative, cultural stereotypes associating gender with STEM ability lowers societal expectations for women in STEM.’

This can be countered by ‘showing girls non-stereotypical images of women in STEM.

‘Given the increasing amount of time spent by children and adolescents consuming mass media – especially on television, computers and other digital devices – we have a unique and powerful opportunity to present young girls with different images of women and STEM.’

Senior STEM professional after senior STEM professional agrees and cites the need for role models and mentors.

Heidi Kleinbach-Sauter, senior vice president, Global Foods R&D, PepsiCo, said that “While this is a complex problem, I believe that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of credible mentors in the field to excite and inspire students and young employees.

“Mentors play a critical role in bringing new people – and particularly women – to careers in STEM.”

Carmel McQuaid, climate change manager at Marks and Spencer, said that “Without access to affordable [child]care, and to good role models and mentors, we may fail to maximise the potential of women and their experience to drive change.”

Purcell says that “Mentors can make a big difference, all through your career. At any stage, but especially when you’re just starting out.”

Edward Daniels, chairman of Shell UK, said, “We need to help make female role models in our industry more visible to challenge preconceptions around engineering being ‘just for boys.'”

Marissa Mayer, the first female engineer at Google and currently Chief Executive of Yahoo, said, “The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models.”

And until equality is reached, at least one leader sees being female in the STEM industries as a strategic advantage.

Padmasree Warrior, chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco Systems, said “I always tell women that the fact that you’re different and that you’re noticed, because there are few of us in the tech industry, is something you can leverage as an advantage.”

While the gender gap continues to affect the outputs of the STEM industries, it also affects the economy.

Daniels states the case strongly, saying that “The chronic shortage of girls going into science and engineering is not simply a question of gender equality, it is a huge threat to economic growth.

“We are losing out on untapped talent and failing to keep pace with our competitors.”

In business, when women take the lead, the difference is notable.

Women entrepreneurs begin with 12 per cent of the funding of their male counterparts, yet have 12 per cent higher revenues.

Companies with three or more female board directors outperform companies with zero female board members in a number of ways, including by 60 per cent return on invested capital.

And “at the most basic level,” said Jeremy Greenwood, managing director of Lafarge Readymix UK, “bringing more women into STEM translates into increased diversity, leading to more innovative problem solving and better results overall.”

With the US Department of Commerce predicting that STEM job openings will grow 17 per cent by 2018, the future for women in science, technology, engineering and math could be bright.