Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Begins with Education
By Teresa Huber, President and CEO, Intervala
When I began my career in engineering more than 30 years ago, I wasn’t surprised to find few female colleagues. I expected that to change with time and, over the years, the number of women completing STEM degrees and working in related fields has grown considerably. In fact, the number of women in STEM careers has been increasing since the early 1990s, but the overall growth has been slow and inconsistent.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 2009 and 2016, the number of women graduating with STEM degrees in the U.S. increased nearly 43%. In fact, in 2016, a higher percentage of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to females than males—58% versus 42%, respectively. However, that same year, male graduates took home 64% of the degrees in STEM-related fields.
Research has long demonstrated the benefits of having more women in the workplace. Companies with more women in leadership roles perform better and have better family policies. Diverse teams are often more innovative, productive and more profitable. And employees on diverse and inclusive teams typically put in more effort, stay longer and demonstrate more commitment.
So, what’s the problem?
As a woman in STEM, I understand some of the reasons why girls and young woman seek other career paths. But, as a CEO of a tech manufacturing company, I see the gender gap in STEM as a very real threat to business and economic growth.
In recent years, economists have predicted that as many as 2 million of the nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs that need to be filled by 2025 will go unfilled due to a skills gap. Closing the gender gap is critical to closing the labor gap.
Today, women remain underrepresented and underutilized in nearly every manufacturing sector in the U.S. Despite comprising nearly half of the total U.S. labor force, we account for less than one-third of manufacturing workers and even less in science and engineering fields. The numbers are better at Intervala where about 40% of our employee population is female. Women work in virtually every function in our company, including production, engineering, operations, supply chain, business development and senior leadership.
Certainly, the reasons why there is such a low percentage of women in STEM are complex and there is no simple solution. Some girls and young women may have been actively discouraged, unconscious bias from teachers and families may play a role, some girls have other interests, and there’s data that shows millennials in general aren’t attracted to manufacturing.
But no matter the factors, the answer is education. Too few women are pursuing STEM degrees. While women’s participation in higher education focused on STEM has grown significantly, it has not increased equally in each field. For example, in the U.S. and U.K, more than 50% of all biomedical degrees are earned by women. However, the numbers shrivel when it comes to mathematics and physical sciences, and women are most severely underrepresented in the computing and engineering fields.
Fortunately, the focus on equal representation in STEM is blossoming. All around the world, educational systems are changing to create environments where interest and passion are nurtured without consideration of gender. And, more and more, educators are realizing that early exposure is key.
Experts say the way to beat the STEM gender gap is to encourage girls to explore their STEM options and interests at an early age. The classroom is one of the biggest environments with the potential to influence a passion in STEM and educators can be role models who guide and support girls in this area. And they don’t have to do it alone. Today, there are enormous resources to help educators drive this evolution, including the National Education Association, American Association of University Women, Smithsonian Science Education Center, and many others.
There’s an important role for the private sector as well. Many large technology-driven companies like HP, Northrop Grumman, Cisco, Google, and others, have invested in outreach programs to engage girls and young women in technology, engineering and science at a younger age. But even smaller companies, like Intervala, can make a difference.
In Pittsburgh, where Intervala is headquartered, we’re fortunate to have several organizations, such as Catalyst Connection, the Pittsburgh Technology Council and BotsIQ, that partner with schools and local industry to sponsor engaging and fun STEM programs for middle and high school students. Intervala has participated in these interactive programs for many years, helping to spark students’ curiosity and create excitement about careers in engineering and manufacturing. Our new Hudson, New Hampshire, operation is implementing similar programs in that community as well.
We also work with local universities and technical schools to spread the message that Intervala is an inclusive workplace where everyone has a voice. We sponsor internships where aspiring female engineers work side-by-side with other women and men in a collaborative environment. And we make it a priority to cultivate a culture of equality and professional development for all. These efforts cost little but reap big rewards for our company and the young professionals who will be the next generation of leaders.
Those of us who lead STEM-oriented businesses have a responsibility to get more involved. Speaking from personal experience, witnessing that spark when a girl or young woman sees how they can use science and technology to make a positive difference in the world is nothing short of inspiring.