When you put together -Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, it give us the field of STEM. Although this term got coined nearly a decade ago, these academic disciplines have taken on a new sense of importance in recent years.
But why is it important?
Haven’t we already been teaching and learning these subjects?
It’s more about the world we live in today, these fields have become significantly more important as we deep dive into the technological era. We now have a greater ability to conduct top-notch research and ask questions that we didn’t dare before. We need mathematics & engineering now more than ever to succeed in this data-based time, developing beyond what was done in the past. Besides, STEM isn’t just about these individual subjects – it’s also about putting more emphasis on hands-on, relevant, real-world experiences.
Moreso – let’s not forget the basic fact that essential jobs today, along with projected job growth, are shining a light directly onto these STEM-based jobs. For instance, in the United States, the field of STEM contributes to nearly half of the manufacturing & services industry. We’ve also got engineers in manufacturing firms, nurses working at hospitals, teachers in schools but also scientists at laboratories.
So we’ve established some basic facts: STEM is important and therefore we must continue to teach & study these disciplines to get jobs. Simple?
No, because there are still fundamental problems within this simple concept, the biggest being the fact that Women are underrepresented in this field. Yes, yet another area in which we are not able to succeed.
It might come as quite a surprise because names such as Marie Curie & Rosalind Franklin are practically household names due to their significant contributions in the study of radiation and the DNA structure, respectively. The stories of their discoveries are still taught in schools and universities to this day. But upon reflection, it seems as though these are the only names commonly discussed across the world. It would mean countless women have helped build the foundation of STEM across the years but have remained unrecognized – could this be something that is affecting women who want to pursue a future in STEM? In the Republic of Korea, 19% of women working under permanent contracts in the STEM field find themselves at lower-level positions in comparison to the dominant higher-paid men.
The Early Days
Funnily enough, this underrepresentation of women in the field has even been recognized by people with power like the ex-president of the United States, Barack Obama. He was adamant about changing the numbers, comparing it to a sporting event wherein the home team wasn’t allowing some of the best players to participate, with only half the players on the field. Although boys & girls are taught Mathematics, Science, and ICT during their early stages of education, statistics show that boys are more likely to pursue these subjects towards high school. And when university rolls around, women are more likely to change their major to a non-STEM field. For instance, in 2010, women Ph.D. candidates in the UK spent more hours per week teaching instead of conducting independent research when compared to male academics – which in a university context, can hinder their chances of a promotion. As a consequence, when it comes to working in the STEM field, women are both undermined and underpaid compared to their male counterparts. According to the European Commission, in 2008, female hourly earnings were an average of 17.5% lower than their male counterparts for all industries.
An interesting factor that comes into play when discussing this disparity is innovation. Innovation stems from diversity as it requires unique perspectives and creative problem-solving tactics. Nowadays, technology has become the most important aspect of everyone’s lives. It can potentially help to solve the world’s biggest issues pertaining to climate change, public health, sanitation, renewable energy, and improved access to education. Now, if we’re looking to solve these complex matters, a diverse team is highly likely to outperform a few highly intelligent individuals of the same gender – ‘collective intelligence’ (Woolley et al., 2010). But with the lack of gender & mental diversity, the STEM sector is losing out on a large chunk from the talent pool and may not be able to enhance their competitive advantage.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Bringing in some more of the numbers, the facts, the hard stats, UK’s sole university and college admissions portal (UCAS), shows that within UK –
- Only 35% of STEM students are women between the years 2017 and 2018. Putting this into perspective, this would mean that men dominate almost ¾ of the field!
- The share of physical sciences and mathematics has a relatively higher percentage of women in the university programs, with 39% and 37%, respectively.
- Only 19% of the student body is female when it comes to programs involving engineering and technology. In order words, we can say that can help you to digest the magnitude of this problem: 23,650 females vs. a whopping 102,970 men.
It’s not all bad, because the numbers do show a decent increase in the number of women in the core subjects of STEM since 2015, shooting up to 24,000 from around 22,000. So, we must be doing something right. But, things go south yet again because these absolute values do not reflect real growth, as the field of STEM is rapidly growing, and the number of men entering this field is increasing parallelly. Speaking relatively, the number of women has only increased from 25% in 2016 to 26% in 2018, while even dropping to 24% in 2017.
The statistics are different when it comes to showcasing the number of women who have graduated with a STEM degree. Overall, the field has witnessed a constant or increased number of graduates given their fields.
- The physical sciences have seen an increase of approximately 500 female graduates a year, roughly a 2% increase.
- Mathematics has been at a constant 39% female graduating rate.
- The absolute number has decreased from 3,765 to 3,690.
- Engineering and technology fields rank last with a graduating rate of 15% from 2015 to 2018.
- The number of female graduates have increased by roughly 570 each year.
The silver lining is that the STEM field is witnessing an increase of female students enrolling in these majors for their higher education. Year-on-year, there is an increase of an average of 1000 female students in the UK who want to study STEM, indicating a positive response to the efforts of encouraging girls to study these subjects.
Considering the UK is a developed and more progressive society, which has seen significant support from the government to help women pursue the STEM fields, the results may be favorable. However, considering global statistics, there may be more work that needs to be done to encourage women to get educated and pursue career in the STEM field. At a global level, enrollment rates for women in core STEM subjects are much lower.
- Only 3% of female students chose to study ICT
- 5% chose Mathematics and Science.
- The highest enrollment rates are within the field of engineering, standing at 8%.
Despite the increased enrollment of women in STEM, from 140,000 in 2009 to 200,000 in 2016, a mere 28% of women are employed with the STEM field, even though women constitute 50% of the global workforce. A potential reason could be the prominent gender wage gap in the STEM industry, where women earn an average of 89 cents to each dollar a man earns. For instance, female chemists earn 30% less than men in the same position, indicating that certain industries have a larger pay gaps.
Data revolving around STEM is most definitely dependent on the region in question as distribution varies even within smaller countries. Based on UNESCO’s research, Central and West Asia only have approximately one-fifth of women working in the field. At the same time, central Asia represents a significant improvement in almost half of the STEM field comprising women. Even within STEM research, only 30% of researchers are women in the world. There is a massive regional variation to this statistic, as certain regions such as Southeast Asia have 80% of women researchers, while Africa has the lowest numbers with only 5%.
Countries with a low proportion of female researchers have also been linked to lower levels of innovation – for instance, South Korea and Japan both have lower than 20% innovation rate. In such regions, males outnumber females and tend to do better on international examinations. Whereas in Southeast Asia, where female representation and enrollment is just about half of the population within the field, women tend to score higher than their male counterparts. These statistics reflect the strong geographical presence of gender bias within STEM and can be an indicator of varying levels of government policies in attempting to improve this gender gap.
This gender gap has been found to extend into education and the work environment, with a lack of representation at higher levels of authority. Lower-income countries in Asia face this dilemma, as there are limited educational resources and fewer female role models for girls at earlier levels of education. As for the workplace in Asia, within the field of Information Technology, one in ten board members are women, which is approximately 12.2%. These board women are typically more qualified than their male counterparts, with 16% having prior experiences in their respective STEM fields, while only 9% of their male counterparts have these experiences. Catalyst’s study found that the board of directors with 3+ women of Fortune 500 companies outperform their competitors by 53% more return on equity and 66% more return on investments.
Shining a light on the West, the United States has a massive gap between STEM graduates and the demand for STEM professionals. As per the US Department of Commerce, females only made up 24% of the STEM workforce, even though half of the overall workforce was female! They predict that the nation requires about 6.6 million jobs within the STEM field in the next decade to grow the STEM industry in the country sustainably. In America’s case, the need to increase the number of women graduating or working in the STEM field comes from an economic need, and not only a matter of gender equality. It comes back to the question of using creative perspectives and problem solving for innovation.
As for America’s neighbor in the North, Canada, struggles to engage female students at tertiary levels of education. Starting at a positive note, typically within the first year, Canadian universities have 44% female enrollments in their STEM courses. However, the University of British Columbia has found from their research that these women transfer out of the STEM majors or end up working in non-STEM related fields, resulting in only a quarter women left pursuing those majors.
Holding Out Hope
While the world is lagging with women’s participation in STEM fields, Singapore has been setting a great example. 54% of girls in Singapore have begun pursuing an education in the field of STEM, with 7 out of 10 high school female students who intend to take up a STEM subject for their higher education. However, one of the biggest deterrents is the highly male-dominated nature of the industry, with 41% of high school girls agreeing with this sentiment. In Singapore, 86% of female STEM students pursue a position within the STEM field as their first job. However, the downside is that, 30% of these women are unsatisfied with the current work environment, but 66% of that 30% is likely to continue in the STEM industry.
Overall, what we can confirm is that some countries are seeing massive growth, whereas others are slipping backward on the STEM slope. In order to promote innovation, equal pay, and a reduced disparity between men & women, we are hopeful that women are brought to the forefront. STEM subjects need to continue to be promoted at a young age, and society should encourage young girls to pursue a subject like mathematics and engineering despite the myth that women aren’t good at.