Where Are the Women in STEM?

March 3, 2015

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By Lorelle L. Espinosa

From decades of widely reported and debated research, we know that women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s.

Although we’ve seen a leveling off for some groups, volumes are still being written about why the gap happened in the first place, what it means for men, and why—despite earning more degrees—women still lag behind in earning power.

But there is one area on campus where the increased presence of women is notably missing: the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), with the greatest disparities occurring in the important fields of engineering and computer science. This problem is just as entrenched as the general dearth of women college students before the 1970s—and the stakes are just as critical.

A recent Snapshot Report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center illustrates a ten-year stagnation of women’s progress in STEM bachelor’s degree attainment over the past decade. When comparing the 2004 and 2014 attainment rates, women’s bachelor’s degree attainment in science and engineering fell by one percent overall, with declines in every field, including those where women are well represented (biological and agricultural sciences; social sciences and psychology). In fact, women lost ground in all seven bachelor’s field categories tracked by the Clearinghouse.

Science & Engineering Degree Attainment: 2004-2014
It should be noted and celebrated that the Snapshot Report shows advancement for women in certain master’s and doctoral degree fields, findings consistent with a 2014 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which shows gender balance in certain STEM fields. While promising, the AIR study nonetheless found that even though some fields demonstrate a gender balance in doctoral degree production relative to the available pool of candidates (i.e., those with bachelor’s degrees in respective fields), the absolute counts of women remain low.

Moreover, there remains a “considerable loss of women candidates between the bachelor’s and doctoral degrees” in several STEM fields, raising further alarm when one considers the bachelor’s degree declines revealed in the Clearinghouse report.

Coming back to bachelor’s degree attainment, most troubling are the fields of engineering and computer science, which saw a one and five percent decline, respectively. In 2014, women earned just 19 percent of engineering and 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees. Compare that to bachelor’s degrees as a whole—in 2014, women accounted for 57.3 percent to men’s 42.7 percent of all degrees granted—and the gender disparity in STEM degrees and what that means for both individuals and the country cannot be ignored.

Moving beyond the Clearinghouse report are closely aligned data published by the National Science Foundation, which shed light on the intersection of gender and race in STEM degree completion. As the agency’s data show, although minority women continue to make gains in psychology and social science fields at the bachelor’s level, their trend line is flat in all other scientific fields—particularly over the last 10 years—with declines in computer science.

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics
These trends are concerning for a number of reasons.

First, whether or not you believe that there’s a STEM shortage (and most experts do think there is one), it’s hard to argue with data that show the wage premium on STEM talent. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, workers majoring in a STEM field earn more than all other majors over their lifetimes, even if they work in non-STEM occupations. And although women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM, the pay gap between women and minorities who do earn a STEM degree and white men in these fields is smaller than in any other occupation.

Beyond these issues of parity and equality of opportunity is the larger argument for diverse perspectives in scientific discovery and technological advancement. How can we not be concerned with the idea of half our population not contributing to discoveries that ultimately affect our entire populace?

A few issues to consider:

1. The dearth of women in STEM is more entrenched than the NSC report shows: In computer science, in particular, there is a not just a 10, but 20 year decline in the percentage of bachelor’s degrees granted to minority women, who earned 6.5 percent and 4.8 percent of computer science degrees in 1993 and 2012, respectively. Over this same period, for minority women in engineering, the gain was less than 1 percent.

2. Demographic changes promise an even larger loss of talent: National demographic data show that a full 92 percent of U.S. population growth in the last decade came from people of color. By 2050, communities of color will be in the majority, representing a projected 53 percent of the U.S. population. Growth of the young Latino population will continue its sharp rise, with a projected 63 percent increase in public high school graduates between the years 2008-09 and 2020-21. Contrast this with the small number of Latinas earning STEM bachelor’s degrees: in 2012, only 3.5 percent of STEM degrees overall and 2.1 and 1.7 percent of engineering and computer science degrees, respectively, went to Hispanic women.

3. The problem of the pipeline: The “pipeline” metaphor is itself decades old, and while some scholars have moved towards more non-linear concepts (like “pathways,” a better representation of the non-linear path that today’s college students take), the reality borne out in scholarly research is that women and minority women are lost at every educational transition point on their way to a STEM career. Women move away from science and math as early as elementary and middle school all the way through the first year of college and again between bachelor’s and advanced degrees.

Recent studies also suggest that policy solutions that focus principally on increasing the pipeline do not guarantee that more women and minorities will pursue a career in STEM research. A paper on biomedical science career patterns, published in PLOS One in December, found that “a supply-side (or pipeline) framing of biomedical workforce diversity challenges may limit the effectiveness of efforts to attract and retain the best and most diverse workforce” because women generally, and women of color in particular, are less likely to express interest in academic careers and more interest in entering non-research positions.

Decades of research on women in STEM, and a much smaller but noteworthy body of work on minority women in these fields, provide insight into why this problem is so persistent, why the lag is so pronounced, and more importantly, what we can do about it. We must first be clear that the scarcity of women in STEM is not a K–12 problem, a higher education problem or a government or private industry problem. It is a societal problem.

Each of these sectors has a vital role to play in ensuring that more women and minority women both enter and succeed in STEM at all education levels and in the workforce. Institutions of higher education in particular must ask themselves what their role is— within STEM departments, in teacher preparation and as regional and national stewards of progress.

For further reading:

Issues Affecting Women in STEM: A Repository of Peer-Reviewed Research

Realizing STEM Equity and Diversity Through Higher Education-Community Engagement (Ira Harkavy, Nancy Cantor, and Myra Burnett; January 2015)

Why Just Filling the Pipeline Won’t Diversify STEM Fields
The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub. req.) (Feb. 23, 2015)

Early Academic Career Pathways in STEM: Do Gender and Family Status Matter?
American Institutes for Research (March 6, 2014)

Harvey Mudd College Makes School History Awarding Majority Of Engineering Degrees To Women
The Huffington Post (May 23, 2014)

Million Women Mentors Launched to Fill the Gap of Women in STEM Fields
U.S. New & World Report (Jan. 9, 2014)

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