There has been a great deal of news coverage about the number of women in STEM occupations of late. STEM, for those of you who have not seen this coverage stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The stated problem according to this coverage is that not enough women pursue careers in these fields. In fact one study has shown that women make up less than 25% of the STEM jobs in the U.S. even though women make up almost 50% of the workers in the workforce. But I ask the question, given the changing nature of demographics, if this is a problem that will take care of itself or will extra help be needed?
More women in college
As of 2011 the number of women receiving degrees, both advanced and bachelor, exceeded the number of men. So the pool of potential talent is there. Unfortunately not enough young women pursue those subjects in college. It is clear that most students have made up their minds of what they want to do as a career before they enter college. Decisions have to be influenced long before high school graduation. One study I recall, done by accounting firms, showed that children often make career choices by the age of twelve. (See Is Your Next Hire 12 Years Old? Recruiting the Next Generation Now!) So early influence is important.
Profile of a pathfinder
Sherry Newton was a smart girl and she loved math. She eschewed dolls and such for tinker toys and science kits. Fortunately she was encouraged in that love of math. When I met her in high school she was one of the advanced math students in addition to being a cheerleader, which shows that you can be a “geek” and still be social. When she graduated high school she was accepted at California Polytechnic University where she majored in math. Upon graduation with highest honors she was recruited as one of Kaiser Steels first female industrial engineers. She had also married me, to my good fortune. In her career she was Mead Packaging’s first female industrial engineer in Atlanta and was profiled in the company careers magazine. She has been a packaging engineer, a key account specialist, and then transitioned into IT as a business analyst. Today she is a Salesforce.com expert for her current company. So in our household STEM has been ever present. It comes from early encouragement of a love for math. That is important.
What needs to be done?
To get more girls interested in STEM careers at an early age there needs to be encouragement at school and encouragement at home. Business has a big role that can be played in the encouragement at home by encouraging parents that work for you. Here is one of the encouragements that can be given- Women with STEM jobs earned 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs. What parent would not want to hear that as a potential opportunity for their daughters? We in HR, a largely female profession these days, can make it apparent what kinds of STEM related jobs our own companies have and how well they pay. We can offer scholarships for students, male and female, to go into STEM programs, especially if as a business we stand to gain by having better future candidates.
We can work with local schools by sponsoring science fairs, math competitions and engineering projects at the elementary and middle school levels. Remember by high school kids have mostly made up their minds, whether they know it or not. We can sponsor company open houses where children are showed what the company does from a technology standpoint. Open houses may be more interesting than you think.
Will the problem disappear?
Numbers alone will not help this problem go away in the next 10 years. We still have too many gender stereotypes rampant in our society that we as businesses don’t do anything to combat. However, with outreach to employees, their children, and their schools we might eventually have a much larger group of talented young women graduating with STEM degrees and getting STEM jobs.