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Closing the Gender Gap in the STEM Industry

In analysis / By Lydia Cooper / 15 August 2017

Over the last decade, it has been reported that the number of women working within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics industry is largely absent, with the level of female engagement decreasing as the level of higher education rises.

An international study undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had found that girls “lack confidence” in their abilities to solve science and maths problems at school. Even those who were achieving high results were skeptical about their skills. While the low participation of girls and women in STEM can be observed at all levels of education, there are now more women studying for a university degree in the UK, so it’s safe to say that the gap in the STEM industry isn’t down to a lack of females working towards a career. It also suggests that said gap will start to close in.

In almost two thirds of degree subjects (112 out of 180) women are outnumbering by men. Since 2007, there has been a 96% increase of females applying for higher education courses (34,035 - 66,840). The UCAS report has shown that 56% of undergraduate students are female, but does this mean there will be an inflation of young women applying for science, technology, engineering and mechanics degrees as a result?

How Big is This Gender Gap?

Between 2012 and 2013, only 17% of students who enrolled in computer science were female. According to Girls in Tech;

  • 35.2% of chemists are women;
  • 11.1% of physicists and astronomers are women;
  • 33.8% of environmental engineers are women;
  • 22.7% of chemical engineers are women;
  • 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women;
  • 17.1% of industrial engineers are women;
  • 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women;
  • 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women

Women account for 62% of the workforce in social sciences, and 48% in biological, agricultural and environmental life sciences, but why are there more females in one particular sector of science in comparison to another? Studies have shown that these types of sciences require more ‘emotional labor’ and are therefore seen as more female orientated pursuits.

Why is this gap so large, and what is deterring women from studying and working in these sectors? Are gender stereotypes and media representation of women in STEM to blame? Or is it the nature of the industry?

The STEM sector is now becoming the pinnacle industry for the narrative of most entertainment media. For example, the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory features successful neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler (played by Neuroscientist Mayim Bialik) and microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski. The film Hidden Figures is based on the brilliant African American Mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Johnson, who were behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn. But this positive portrayal is very recent, and coverage of successful women in STEM is still massively gender bias.

In 2014, writer Alice Bell wrote a piece for The Guardian titled, ‘Why are the media so obsessed with female scientists’ appearance?’ after noting that The Observer had focused on scientist Susan Greenfield’s appearance, rather than praising her work. A study from the University of Cardiff had looked at how 51 scientists were profiled in British media and had found that, “half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of men.” (Scientific American). This negative coverage consistently downplays their professional achievements - especially when you compare it to the recognition of men in the STEM sector. This may potentially deter women from embarking in a career where their hard work will go unrecognized.

How can we close this gap and change this stereotype?

As soon as we see an aggregation of women working in STEM, we will see greater technological advances and innovation - research has shown that knowledge in scientific fields expand when more women get involved. This reinforces power of collaboration between men and women in STEM fields.

So, how do we close this gap? There are numerous ways to promote the progression of women in STEM fields, and we need to start young. We should encourage our children to follow their academic goals regardless of their gender. Schools and teachers can also influence the closing of this gap, by reworking curriculums to include young female students who harbour an interest in STEM.

The only way to close this gender gap is to actively encourage young women to pursue education and careers in STEM. It’s time we start breaking the barriers and stereotypes in order to to turn STEM into a more inclusive field. Once we’ve built a more gender-balanced workforce, we will see incredible results in greater scientific and technological advancements.

Lydia Cooper

Lydia Cooper

Group Marketing Manager at Nasstar.

Telford, Shropshire
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