In Part I of this series, we looked at the shockingly low numbers of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and some of the programs and best practices that try to address this issue. In this piece, we will further discuss women’s experience in STEM, both as students and professionals, and the effectiveness of inclusion programs.
I am proud to say that I am an engineer, and in a lot of ways, I had the perfect childhood to lead me here. I was extremely fortunate to be the audience of STEM programs targeting women in every stage of my K-12 education and in college. I had support from my parents and teachers, fun and interactive projects in middle school, and exciting and engaging summer programs in high school. And at every step along the way, I had female peers equally excited as me, and female role models and mentors encouraging me to pursue my passion. In middle school I built a model roller coaster to demonstrate basic physics principles. In high school I spent a summer learning how to code and use power tools with other girls through the local community college. I spent another summer at a local university doing mini projects to learn more about the different fields of engineering, surrounded by both male and female students and mentors. At this age, I was aware that there were fewer women in STEM fields than men, but I never saw that as an obstacle. Instead, I was proud to be a woman interested in science and engineering. I was set up for success, and never doubted my future in STEM.
The opportunities presented to me early on led me to pursue a major in chemical engineering with a concentration in biotechnology, and I earned my degree with honors from one of the top engineering schools in the country. Luckily, the support I received in middle and high school continued in college. While I was rarely one of only a few women in my STEM classes, that was not the case for my peers studying computer science or mechanical engineering, and I often heard their grievances on the subject. However, my school was aware of this and tried to ensure its female students had a supportive environment to learn in. Thus, again I was a part of the audience to some of the programs that aim to support women in STEM.
I was a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and was surrounded by women who were studying engineering. These ladies were my friends who became a support network of mentors and mentees. Following some of the best practices in supporting women in STEM, I was presented with role-models of women who were excelling in their field. This created a sense of belonging and expelled some of the prevailing stereotypes of engineers. I felt empowered and celebrated as a female engineer, rather than a minority or diversity statistic. Furthermore, my university supported and encouraged organizations that fostered diversity in STEM fields. This enabled us to secure funding as an organization to not only host events for women in STEM on campus, but also outreach events for hundreds of students in elementary, middle, and high school every year. During these events, students at the university would show young girls what engineers do for a living though hands-on activities. This message, coming from women studying engineering, surely had a positive impact on the community, and on the women studying STEM.
By the time I graduated, I had a strong list of accomplishments, including being on the Dean’s List and graduating with honors, published research and patents, multiple internships, as well as demonstrated leadership skills from positions in student and outreach organizations. And I was not alone – many of my peers with similar accomplishments were women across different fields of science and engineering. While I would not say my university was perfect, their efforts to support women in STEM were working, and their numbers were and still are going up. The support my university offered was honestly simple, and takes more awareness and strategic planning rather than money. It is not difficult for schools to have similar practices in place, and many do. However, there are many women across the country who do find themselves without a support network, or regularly are the only woman in their classes. For these women, earning a STEM degree is more challenging, and sometimes, there are barriers that preclude success. But if we as a nation can make these small changes to support female students, then perhaps they will not have to be lucky to experience the same level of support that I did.
Graduating from a school in which I had so many resources and support as both a student and a female engineer, I expected to have that same level of comradery and support in the workforce. However, that did not turn out to be the case. Having been in the workforce for three years – almost as long as my education took – I can see a lot of disparities between the two environments. Even during my internships I was able to see these differences. For example, it was not until the third day of my internship – at a Fortune 100 company that highlights its diversity statistics – that I encountered another female. It turns out the one female engineer in my building of 10+ had been on vacation the previous two days.
My current employer is also a large, global company with similar best practices to ensure a diverse workforce and yet, there are multiple times I find myself as both the only woman and only person of color in the room while at work. Although I work at a diverse company and have supportive coworkers, there is ample room for improvement. I find that almost every workplace that relies on employees with a STEM background has a policy in place that highlights the importance of women and diversity in STEM fields and even some with numbers to show their success. However, just like the statistics at the start of this piece, when we zoom in the numbers become jarring. For example, I have been the only female in a technical team on multiple occasions in my short career, and I speculate that there are many women across the country who can recount similar experiences.
Most women cite a micro-culture as their reason for leaving the STEM field. It is a collection of small factors that ultimately cause women to leave the field. These women claim there are fewer advancement opportunities for women or the culture is not supportive. Some women feel they are being undermined or underestimated and being given less challenging work, making their job less rewarding overall. Many also point to the wage gap, which is less for women in STEM than women in the workforce overall, but still significant. When all these factors come together, it stops being worthwhile for women to remain in STEM roles; they feel dissatisfied by their job or underappreciated by their company. Many are also disappointed by their career, stating there are more meetings and less building, inventing, and helping than their education made it seem there would be. Thus, they look for positions that allow them to utilize their technical background even if their role is not technical by definition. They go on to apply their knowledge elsewhere in a more supportive and rewarding environment. Notably, only 22% of women cite family care as their reason for leaving.
Those who stay in STEM cite supportive bosses and co-workers, and a company that has a positive culture and promotes work-life balance for all. Again, the best practices that keep women in the STEM workplace are simple and easy to put in place. They require more awareness than capital resources. While most companies have women’s groups, they are not always targeted at women in STEM, and tend to focus on working mothers. Given most women exit STEM fields within 10 years of graduating, these groups usually fall short of offering the support women in STEM need. Part of what made my engineering education fun, exciting, and rewarding was the comradery that I found in my classes, student organizations, and university. It is something that I miss and would welcome back, and it is an easy step employers can take to support women in STEM.
Prior to beginning my research for this piece, I myself was questioning my future in a functional STEM role. Just as some of the other women who found their technical role to be less impactful than expected, I too wondered if I might be able to utilize my skills and education in a different role that would help more people. This leads to a concerning question – if I have doubts about my future in a STEM role, even with my supportive childhood and education, what must other women who did not have similar luxuries be experiencing?
Friends across the country have had similar stories: a civil engineer working in construction constantly struggles with what to wear to work that is feminine, but follows safety requirements, is functional and comfortable; a biomedical engineer went straight into consulting because she felt she could have a bigger impact and help more people; a mechanical engineer who is struggling to be promoted despite strong annual reviews. The recent media campaigns of “Distractingly Sexy” and “I look like an Engineer” say a lot about workplace climate for women in STEM, and books like Lean In by Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg and surveys like Elephant in the Valley spell it out in more detail. The country is certainly becoming more aware, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
This increase in public advocacy and awareness has led to more programs and initiatives promoting STEM to girls. The Girl Scouts’ recent restructuring highlights STEM through a number of badges. We have programs like Girls Who Code and SWE Next. There are more resources for K-12 educators to help them support female students showing an interest or talent in science and math. There is an overwhelming amount of research being done to determine how to encourage young women to pursue STEM and the internet has made these initiatives easier to organize and helped them reach more students. And yet, there are still very few women graduating with degrees in historically underrepresented STEM fields, and of those who do, an alarming number of them are leaving STEM. We may have figured out how to successfully spark an interest in girls to pursue STEM, but we still fall short in widespread execution and we certainly do a poor job at supporting them through college and into the workplace. Things are improving, but the job is not done.
There has never been a more important time to celebrate and support women in STEM. Universities and workplaces need to be more proactive about how they treat their female technical talent and to create a culture in which women are equals and feel that they are being treated fairly. If there is not a change in the culture and support offered to women in STEM, then all of our efforts at encouraging young girls to pursue STEM will fail to create change. We will lose the creativity and innovation that diversity brings, whether it is the lifesaving realization that women were more likely to die from first-generation airbags because male engineers failed to account for women’s breasts being closer to the steering wheel, or that many women who use public transportation travel with a child and thus buses and trains can be better designed to accommodate mothers with small children. If we as a society want to reap the benefits of life saving innovations or improved quality of life, then we need to do more to support and celebrate women in STEM.
Written by Palak Pujara for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates.