The lightning-fast technological advances in the past generation have strained the ability of related industries to keep pace. One often-heralded solution calls for recognizing the gender disparity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and finding innovative ways to reduce it. Numerous efforts have emerged to face that disparity head-on, yet progress has remained a struggle, at best.
Eons ago, when this engineer first entered the profession, it was dominated by men. Prejudice as well as common work and hiring practices expended considerable effort to keep it that way. Teachers routinely discouraged girls from entering that world by telling them that they were not “emotionally equipped” (or some similar insult) to handle such complex subjects. Women brave enough to enter this single-gendered environment experienced resistance ranging from invisibility to active hostility. The men in charge didn’t want women in their “club.” Women who invaded that world often found themselves shuttled into less-prestigious corners of the profession, their work belittled and their opinions ignored. One woman looking for a software-engineering job balked when her interviewer asked if she could type. When he assured her that he asked that question of every applicant because touch-typing correlated to higher software-engineering productivity, she relaxed only slightly. She told him about an interview where she admitted she could type and was immediately offered a job in the company’s typing pool.
Thankfully such examples of overt discrimination have largely faded from the landscape. Yet the dearth of women in STEM professions continues. The latest research (Sassler, S., et al., “The missing women in STEM? Assessing gender differentials in the factors associated with transition to first jobs,” Social Science Research (2016)) looks at women who graduated with STEM degrees from the 1970s to the 1990s and their work experience. It indicates that although more women seek out STEM education, the numbers remain far below where they should be. Among all college graduates in the study, 32.6% of the men pursued STEM majors as opposed to 14.8% of the women. Among all graduates, 18.3% of the men but only 8.5% of the women got jobs in STEM occupations within two years after graduation.
Some of the discrepancy may result from the way that women disproportionately select careers in biological and similar “soft” sciences that are not considered “STEM.” The presence of fewer women in STEM professions translates to fewer women who can serve as mentors for the next generation, perpetuating the gap. Experience has shown that women work better with same-gender mentors. Even professing to postpone or forgo marriage and family made no difference in hiring women. Surprisingly, among men, expectations to marry early made hiring them more likely, perhaps because of the time-honored perception that men who marry early incur family obligations that make them more reliable employees than men who don’t.
The researchers reported one rather unusual difference between the men and the women who work in these fields. Men who gravitate toward these occupations tended to be more conventional in their perception of gender roles, while the women tended to be less so. Perhaps there lies one important factor in the resistance to change. The men (who disproportionately do the hiring and promotion) perceive that the men “need it more”—an antiquated attitude at best.
Apparent from the investigation is the glaring call for change. The ever-present demand for more scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to support and extend our highly technological society remains. Everyone in those professions must encourage students to study—and then pursue—STEM occupations, regardless of their gender or plans for home and family. Failure to bridge that gap can only slow our ability to sustain this critical aspect of sociological and economic growth.