Women workers lag in STEM
The numbers are stark. In most science, technology, engineering and math fields, the number of women workers lags far behind men.
In 2008, as few as 7 percent of mechanical engineers and 8 percent of electrical and electronics engineers were women, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women.
Christianne Corbett, senior researcher for the AAUW and a co-author of the report, says that this underrepresentation is creating an unconscious bias against women working in these fields. That bias pushes women away from majoring in STEM subjects and entering the workforce in these fields.
While the number of women in STEM jobs is increasing, most people associate science and math fields with men and humanities and arts fields with women, according to Corbett’s research. The bias is common, even among individuals who reject these stereotypes.
“It is challenging to work in STEM fields, because there aren’t enough women,” said Jen McDaniel, engineer and Tech Trek camp director at the University of Central Florida. “The reality is that you’re going to have a male champion because there are more men in the field.”
Bias at an early age
Women, even those who work in STEM fields, are inclined to think of men when asked to visualize people who work in STEM fields, Corbett said. And in male-dominated fields, people tend to view women as less competent and less likeable, according to Project Implicit, a project at Harvard and other universities that examines unconscious thought.
The stereotype is a perception girls and boys learn at a young age. When children in school are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, for instance, most of them will always draw a male figure, McDaniel said.
But for McDaniel, interest in technology started young. She grew up in Satellite Beach, Fla., watching space shuttles lift off from the nearby Kennedy Space Center. “I liked to invent things and knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
She pursued a career in engineering and has been in the industry for 19 years, working as a researcher in the corporate world for AT&T Bell Labs. She said she had to work hard to get where she is.
“I went and got my master’s degree, because I felt that I needed to be a little more educated than the average male in the field,” she said.
Work vs. children
McDaniel said that sometimes, a manager would not send her on business trips because she had a child at home.
Barbara Sando, co-president of the AAUW Washington State branch, said such treatment from managers is not uncommon.
“Even as another woman, I tended to think about a woman having family commitments when it came to things like traveling,” she said.
Sando worked as an engineer and engineering manager with Boeing for 32 years and often made the call on who would travel. Yet Sando didn’t work for a woman manager until she had been in the industry for more than 25 years.
“I was always pretty much in the minority, but unless I really stopped and thought about it, it didn’t bother me,” Sando said, “which is why I survived.”
All of this is not to say that women aren’t making a difference in STEM fields. Women’s presence in these fields has been gradually increasing since 1970, and they represent more than half of the workforce in the biological sciences.
“The field of biology is more equal and very representative of the population, because of all the women in the field,” Corbett said.
Teachers play a role
The key to addressing the issue is keeping young girls interested in these fields throughout high school, Sando said. For McDaniel, all it took to solidify her career choice was a high school teacher encouraging her to attend a forum where she was exposed to women in who worked in a STEM field.
“I thought, if that woman can do it, I can do it,” she said.
McDaniel is also making an effort to help her own child feel the same way she did.
“I have a young daughter,” she said. “I find STEM activities in Girl Scouts and take her to work with me on ‘bring your child to work day,’ so she may not understand the rockets and physics.”
“But,” she said with emphasis, “she will not be afraid of it.”
Graphic: Daniela Madriz. Home page photo: Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr.