Why Are Women Underrepresented in Scientific Fields?

Last week, I wrote about the systemic failure of public schools to prepare kids for science and math focused jobs. These aren’t just theoretical jobs of tomorrow, they are well-paid positions that American employers literally can’t fill fast enough.

Despite this nation’s poor international ranking in both math and science educational achievement, tech focused jobs in the U.S. have grown at three times the normal pace through this past decade. This trend is expected to amplify through the foreseeable future.

Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Looking specifically at the people who hold these science and tech jobs, the gender gap is unmistakable. Men outnumber women three-to-one. Interestingly, a nationwide survey of 1,000 teen girls from the Girl Scout Research Institute shows that a lack of interest in science isn’t the problem.

There is a long-standing biased perception that girls don’t perform as well in math and science as boys. However, the American Association of University Women has shown that high school girls and boys perform equally well in math and science.

If this is the case, why aren’t girls prioritizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields when thinking about their future careers? I suspect this is another example of how public school systems, and universities for that matter, are not adequately preparing students for the requirements of today’s workplace.

Here are some interesting findings from a recently released report, entitled Generation STEM: What Girls Say About Science, Technology, Engineering and Math:

  • Overall, a majority of girls find STEM fields interesting: 74 percent of teen girls are interested in the fields of STEM and in STEM subjects.
  • Girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and problem solving: 88 percent of girls like to understand how things work; 85 percent like puzzles and solving problems; and 83 percent like doing hands-on science projects.
  • Girls interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.
  • Although interest in STEM is high, few girls consider it their number-one career choice, given competing opportunities and interests: 81 percent of girls are interested in pursuing STEM careers, but only 13 percent say it is their first choice.
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5 Responses to Why Are Women Underrepresented in Scientific Fields?

  1. rofrech says:

    Perhaps the more appropriate question to ask is ‘why have women been smart enough to stay away from a career with no job prospects’. Observations in some fields may differ, but certainly in the scientific disciplines relevant to life sciences industries, there are absurd numbers of well-educated US-based scientists, ranging from fresh BA/BS graduates to experienced PhDs, who are unemployed, underemployed or doing something else. One has to wonder how much scientific training is needed to do jobs such as stocking shelves in a supermarket. Employers who claim there is a shortage of potential employees clearly are not looking hard enough, or have chosen to craft unnecessarily narrow position requirements.

    • George Goodno says:

      Thanks for your post. Please check out the message I posted below. I hope this addresses your points.

  2. C says:

    Where are all these widely-available, high paying science jobs? I’d like to tell all my under-employed scientist and engineer friends about them. As a college-degreed science professional (and a woman) I have never made a salary higher than a first-year school teacher. And what is your source for the 3:1 ratio of men to women in science (just curious)? Which fields in sciences?

  3. There are a number of problems in the Life Science industries – tools, diagnostics, therapeutics and medical devices and mostly in the therapeutics companies – the money has dried up from seed funding to VC to IPO and therefore many therapeutics companies have gone to a “virtual” business model and are outsourcing much of the work to CROs and CMOs that could have been done by new scientists (BS or PhD) in-house.

    There are many people who have been downsized or laid off from biocompanies which have had to retrench due to failure of their drugs to get FDA approval and there has been a recent surge of mergers and acquisitions – all of this leading to simply fewer jobs and more experienced people available in the life sciences.

    Technology, engineering and math have a much stronger jobs outlook. High-tech rebounded first from the recession and is hiring hand over fist currently.

    The difference is that the draw for Life Sciences is the “good for humanity” value system that seems to be more enticing to women than the “let’s make money and have fun blowing things up” values at, say, electronic gaming companies. So we have many women biologists (largest undergraduate degree at UCSD for example) and not so many physicists, computer science majors, engineers, etc.

    There may well be a bigger gap in the board room and at the “C” level than there is in the lab due to the history of women in the last 30 years. But I’m also not seeing incubators seeking out women – the general rule is “two guys and a molecule” not “two women and a molecule”.

    What do you think?

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