Announcing STEM in Style: A Celebration of Women in STEM -- Click here to learn more!

The importance and benefits of diversity have long been established. Diverse companies, groups, and teams are better problem solvers, more creative, and have more innovation and growth. he abundance of research that encourages workplaces to support diverse work environments all the way from entry level to c-suite begs the question: why are some of the most innovative fields so lacking in diversity? The fields I am referring to are science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). MASA has already written about the benefits for individuals and industry to bolster racial diversity in STEM fields in a three part series, so this piece will focus primarily on gender diversity. Specifically, I examine why there are so few women in STEM fields, both in terms of college graduation and in the workforce. This piece looks at the current state of women in STEM fields, and some of the programs that aim to raise these numbers, while the second part will focus on women’s experiences in STEM fields.

According to the Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 report conducted by the National Science Board, women have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Progress to remedy this has been slow despite the increase in awareness and programs aimed at encouraging women to pursue STEM fields. In 2013, females earned 57.3% of all bachelor’s degrees and this number has remained constant over the course of the past decade. Women earned 50.3% of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, which includes biological sciences, psychology, social science, mathematics, engineering, computer science, and physical science. This statistic looks very promising, and gives the impression that women are adequately represented in STEM fields. However, looking closer, this average was boosted significantly by the biological and social sciences, in which women earned over 50% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2013.  Within historically underrepresented fields such as computer science or engineering, a different story emerges (Table 1). The meager 17.9% for computer science and 19.3% for engineering means that across the country less than 1 in 5 Bachelor’s degree-earning students in these fields are women. Given this is an average, it is easy to imagine a situation in which there is only 1 female student in a computer science or engineering classroom, or perhaps none at all.


Field Bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in the  US (2013)
All fields of study 57.3%
All STEM fields 50.3%
Psychology 76.6%
Biological & Agricultural Sciences 58.0%
Social Science 54.9%
Mathematics 43.1%
Physical Science 39.0%
Engineering 19.3%
Computer Science 17.9%

Table 1: Percent of women earning bachelor’s degrees by field for the US in 2013


Considering how many women actually work in STEM fields, the story becomes more grim, especially given that the percent of women in the STEM workforce in the US has increased a mere 6.1% from 1993 to 2013 (Table 2).

Field Women working in the US (1993) Women working in the US (2013)
All college educated workforce 42.6% 50.3%
All STEM fields 22.9% 29.0%
Social Scientist 50.7% 61.6%
Biological/Agricultural/Environmental Life Scientists 34.0% 48.4%
Physical Scientist 21.3% 30.7%
Computer/Mathematical Scientists 30.8% 25.3%
Engineering 8.6% 14.9%

Table 2: Women in the STEM workforce in 1993 and 2013


Even within the physical sciences or engineering, these numbers are more fragmented, with women leaning more towards fields related to chemistry, biology, or healthcare and away from physics, math, or computers. For example, only 7.9% of practicing mechanical engineers and 11.1% of physicists/astronomers are women whereas 33.8% of environmental engineers and 35.2% of chemists are women. Within my own profession, I contribute to the 22.7% of chemical engineers who are women. These numbers tell a very challenging story for women pursuing notoriously difficult fields, who find that upon graduation, the numbers only become worse. And the numbers are even lower for minority women in STEM fields. While it may be tempting to assume that there is a time lag between women graduating and gender ratio in the workforce changing, a study by TATA Consultancy Services predicts that only 3% of the women working towards a bachelor’s degree in engineering will be working in the field 10 years after graduation. This finding supports previous research that shows 40% of women who earn degrees in STEM either leave their chosen profession or never enter it in the first place. Even if a woman graduates with a STEM degree, she may never apply her knowledge in the field.

Given the collective millions of dollars various companies, universities, non-profits, and government organizations spend on programs and outreach to encourage women to pursue STEM, there is clearly something missing. Programs target women at all stages of their lives, from childhood, through college, and into the workplace. This holistic approach seems promising, but the number of women in STEM is still alarmingly low. Either more needs to be done or the approach needs to be modified.

Programs that target girls do so on the basis that early exposure is key. Research has shown that all children, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, are more likely to become inventors if they have someone in their life similar to them that is also an inventor. This means that it is crucial for young girls to be exposed to older females studying or working in STEM fields. The same study also showed that only 18% of inventors are female, and while the gap is closing, “at its current rate, it will take another 118 years to reach gender parity,” highlighting the fact that additional efforts must be made. Other studies have pointed out that girls want to pursue careers in which they can work with and/or help people. STEM fields are often portrayed as solo endeavors working in corporations rather than group efforts that can have high social impact. Combined with storytelling as a way to highlight the collaborative and creative nature of STEM, programs that target young girls are often very successful by debunking these myths and providing a role-model. My own experience with these programs and being in the workforce is expanded upon on Part II of this piece.

Written by Palak Pujara for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *