Careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are enjoying 80 percent of the job growth in the United States, yet a gender imbalance in these fields means that almost half of American workers are at risk of being left behind by the boom. A recent survey shows that women who aspire to STEM careers lack role models, encounter negative stereotypes and feel uncomfortable in male-dominated classrooms.
Because of these challenges, the number of women earning STEM degrees in college continues to stagnate. In the survey, almost half of the women said they had thought about switching from a STEM major, and one in five current STEM majors expressed doubt that they would continue on that path. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they struggle with confidence in their chosen careers, and 48 percent said that being a woman in STEM has made their experience more difficult.
The survey, conducted by CDW-G, included 150 students who plan to graduate in a STEM major or have done so in the last five years, as well as 150 students who left a STEM major.
These findings are important for many reasons, most notably because any professional field performs best with a diverse range of perspectives. Effective leadership and smart decision-making depend upon it. This is especially true with technology, where exponential growth is driving significant change in our society and our day-to-day lives. The breadth of insights that we can achieve with a balanced mix of men and women will serve us all as we navigate unprecedented logistical, security, ethical and social challenges.
The persistent gender imbalance in STEM also has created a shortage in the professional pipeline that, if not addressed, means this problem will continue into the future. Technology companies and higher education institutions must take steps now to inspire women of the next generation to be a part of the important work that occurs in these sectors. The solution? Make sure that girls and young women who are interested in STEM careers have every opportunity to succeed.
We know from intuition and experience, and our research confirms, that role models and mentors are two of the best ways to encourage women’s participation in STEM. CDW-G has kicked off a pilot program, UniversITy Women, to connect college women with female leaders of Fortune 500 tech companies.
In partnership with Indiana University and the University of Wisconsin, we facilitated three workshops that brought young women and female executives together to discuss trends and give students an opportunity to learn about the executives’ professional journeys. This gave the students a chance to engage with successful women who are thriving in STEM careers and to gather practical advice to use in their own careers.
As institutions consider other strategies to close this gap, survey respondents offer a suggestion: Create more opportunities for students to engage with female role models who have succeeded in STEM careers. In the survey, 58 percent said institutions should bring in more female role models as speakers, 55 percent recommend initiatives that connect university women with influential females in STEM, and 54 percent say colleges should create more internship opportunities for women in STEM.
Initiatives such as internships, speakers’ series, workshops and other programs serve an important educational purpose: building academic and professional knowledge. Equally important, they help to develop women’s confidence and a sense of parity with male peers.
Mentorships are critical, and they come in many forms. They give women real-life examples of what is possible and help them frame their own aspirations. Professors, more experienced students and professionals in STEM fields are all valuable connections for young women. The right resources and opportunities help to ensure that young women feel a sense of belonging in the field and that they receive the support they need to follow through to graduation. Ultimately, this benefits us all, as technology and other STEM fields continue to play a critical role in shaping our future.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.