Unlocking balance, brilliance in the STEM fields

Ensuring more opportunities for women in STEM careers is essential.

09/10/2012


Women who choose to follow careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines face unique and frustrating challenges. Even after we establish ourselves in our careers, we continue to encounter potential career-ending traps. Not only do women in STEM careers have higher attrition rates than do their male counterparts—especially within the first 10 years on the job—we also have higher attrition rates than women in other career fields. The general belief that men outperform women in STEM fields is one of the reasons for the high attrition rate. Other reasons include cognitive gender differences, a woman’s lack of interest in the STEM fields, work-life balance issues, and bias. This is an important reality to acknowledge and correct; otherwise, we will never level the playing field. Ensuring more opportunity for women in STEM careers is essential to helping our industries better serve and respond to the needs of humanity.

In the workforce, women have been closing the gender gap in both rate of employment and income nearly year after year. During the recession that started in 2008, when job loss was approaching Great Depression numbers, women held onto jobs at much higher rates than did men. Currently, women in full-time jobs make, on average, 20% less than men do. However, the number of women in the workforce is on the brink of surpassing the number of men for the first time in American history.

Women are gaining numbers in traditionally male-dominated fields, but they are still significantly outnumbered in STEM occupations. Men drastically outnumber women in terms of bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields, which is a direct result of more men enrolling in STEM majors overall. Addressing these problems has been the first step in finding solutions. Getting talented women into male-dominated careers is one struggle, while keeping them there is another. This issue is especially apparent in STEM careers, which are extremely important to the global economy.

Attracting more women to and retaining them in STEM careers will help tremendously to improve diversity, maximize creativity, and boost competitiveness. Women bring a different perspective to the workplace and can help breed creativity in scientific fields that can only expand as broadly as the minds that work within them. The number of women employed in STEM fields has increased over the past few decades, but not at rates that will soon eliminate the male domination in those fields. Gender bias on the job is still prevalent in the workforce, although not in the same overt ways it was in the past. To limit gender biases, employers need to monitor their hiring practices, their work environments, and the ways in which they might be hindering gender diversity.

Possibly more than any other area, the STEM fields will greatly benefit from a more balanced male-to-female ratio. Many jobs within the STEM fields focus on designing products and materials that aim to advance our experiences and allow us to live safer lives. Therefore, it is critical to have a strong female presence to ensure that products and materials are developed to benefit both genders. Without the involvement of women in these fields, product designers may easily overlook needs that are specific to women. Examples of this are evident in the design of past products. For instance, when voice-recognition was first becoming popular, the systems were calibrated to recognize male voices because only males were designing the products. Because of this, women’s voices were unrecognized when they tried to use the various systems.

Having people with different mind-sets, capabilities, and imaginations on production teams improves the creative process and helps to minimize avoidable mistakes. Products rooted in science and technology are likely to better meet the needs of both men and women if the products are designed by teams comprising both genders. It is a matter of designing products that are compatible with a broad audience. It is a matter of safety too, and it starts with attracting more women to the promise of fulfilling and challenging STEM careers.

Karen Purcell is the founder and president of PK Electrical, an electrical engineering, design, and consulting firm in Reno, Nev. She is the author of “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.”



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