What challenges exist for women in STEM? Tell us

Woman engineer standing next to industrial size solar panels

Women account for 47 percent of the American workforce, but they’re woefully underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, even as their educational statistics in the sciences achieve parity with those of men. Women earn a nearly equal proportion of bachelor’s degrees in the STEM areas of study, but you’d never know it when looking at the numbers on the employment side. Only 39 percent of all working chemists are women, and the numbers are even lower for careers in environmental science and chemical and civil engineering. Solving the problem requires action on two fronts, according to women in the field: 1) Bring talented women into the STEM fields and 2) Keep them there.

History Plays a Role

In exploring the dearth of women entering the field and the high rate of attrition, it becomes clear that a number of factors are at play. Most obviously there is the historical exclusion of females from educational recruitment opportunities in STEM subjects. When little attention is paid to encouraging women to study STEM, fewer women enter the field. This goes a long way toward explaining the significant dearth of role models. It creates challenges for women who may be interested in the subjects but feel that no community exists for them, and thus may abandon STEM in favor of other fields where they feel more welcome. Other factors include the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance in a STEM field after having children, and the potentially sexist and hostile work environments many women face as minorities in the field.


When a marketing campaign featuring a female engineer drew an astounding amount of sexist feedback in 2015, women working in STEM began posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag #thisiswhatanengineerlookslike. The movement went viral, shining a spotlight on the sexism that many women in STEM fields encounter daily. It forced the STEM community to acknowledge that although the numbers behind the scenes may be increasing, women in STEM fields continue to have tremendously low public visibility.

A number of programs and initiatives have been introduced in an effort to combat these issues, as well as to increase public exposure and create functioning, supportive environments for women in STEM. “Girls Who Code,” a nonprofit summer program in computer science, is among the most compelling. Founded by Reshma Saujani in 2012, the program allowed 1,200 girls in 14 cities to take courses in programming languages like JavaScript, HTML, and jQuery, creating original apps and websites complete with marketing and business plans.

Making Job Reentry Flexible

At the corporate level, companies like IBM have developed reentry programs for women who have taken four- to 12-year breaks from their tech careers to start families or pursue other work. Participants receive salaries while learning new technology, up-skilling and reacquainting themselves to the workforce.

NYU senior Elizabeth Fisher started a mentoring program for students at her university, understanding that a lack of role modeling often leads to feelings of exclusion and aversion. As part of NYU’s Women in Science initiative, the program pairs a senior or junior majoring in a STEM field with a freshman who is considering a career in one of these areas.

Working in a Male-Dominated Profession

Convincing highly skilled, intelligent women to choose careers in STEM fields is only half of the battle. A woman in a STEM field faces significant hurdles working in a male-dominated environment after she graduates and joins the workforce. These challenges run the gamut from being ignored and having her work devalued to coping with sexist remarks and harassment. Barbara Annis, founder of the Gender Intelligence Group (a Pearson partner), has made it her mission to educate organizations and companies on what it means to create and sustain a fully-inclusive workplace. Annis stresses that for decades, being a successful woman in the workplace meant being the woman who could most successfully behave like a man. Not only does altering one’s behavior feel nullifying and inauthentic to women, but this requirement also continues to propagate the idea that the only successful workplace is one that embodies typically masculine qualities. This consistently overlooks the valuable skills and professional styles that women bring to the workplace.

Annis found that male–dominated offices tend to have aggressive, transactional cultures. Many women choose to leave rather than fit in, taking their considerable talents with them. Companies can go a long way toward long-term retention of happy, productive, talented employees by making a concerted effort to create communities that embrace workers of both genders, while valuing their contributions.

Advice for Women in STEM?

We know there are challenges. And there are people who will tell you that those challenges aren’t real, but we know that’s not the case. If you are a woman working or studying in STEM, or a man who works with female colleagues in a STEM field, Please share with us in comments – what challenges do you encounter and what are you, or your organization, doing about it?

Learn what Pearson is doing to help address STEM gender issues in the U.S.

  • 7 Lessons From Facebook, Pinterest, And Google On Building Diverse Teams http://www.fastcompany.com/3053881/the-future-of-work/7-lessons-from-facebook-pinterest-and-google-on-building-diverse-teams
  • Why Women Shouldn’t Have to Act Like Dudes at Work http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/women-work-gender-equality-workplace/399503/
  • How Paid Re-Entry Programs Can Get More Women In Tech http://www.fastcompany.com/3057081/the-future-of-work/how-paid-re-entry-programs-can-get-more-women-in-tech
  • For Female Scientists, Modeling Means Setting an Example http://www.usnews.com/news/stem-solutions/articles/2015/10/23/loreal-women-in-science-celebrates-fellowship-recipients
  • Girls Who Code aims to make waves in a man’s world http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-girls-who-code-20150730-story.html
  • Women In Science Pilots Mentor Program for Freshman Entering STEM Fields http://www.nyunews.com/2016/02/23/women-in-science-pilots-mentor-program-for-freshman-entering-stem-fields/
  • VTC initiative aims to get more women in STEM fields http://www.wcax.com/story/31131929/new-vtc-initiative-to-increase-women-enrollment-in-stem-fields
  • Rankings & Advice News U.S. News Home NEWS Facebook Twitter News, Opinion & Analysis News Ken Walsh’s Washington Decision 2016 The Run 2016 The Chase Washington Whispers At the Edge Data Mine Special Reports Opinion National Issues Best Countries Cartoons Photos The Report Women Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/10/21/women-still-underrepresented-in-stem-fields