Why Few Women Work in STEM Fields
Thu, April 22, 2021

Why Few Women Work in STEM Fields



In an era where women are increasingly prominent in law, medicine, and business, why are there are so few women scientists and engineers? It’s become common to see successful female doctors, nurses, lawyers, attorneys, and entrepreneurs. Yet, when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), things aren’t as promising.


STEM Women in Numbers

While the number of women in STEM fields has increased over the past decades, these fields have been predominantly male. This gender imbalance is often referred to as the STEM gap. While women constitute almost 50% of the labor market, there are only 28% of women in STEM fields as opposed to 72% of men. Statistics from the 2018 workforce WISE campaign showed that the STEM sector is continuing to grow at a rapid rate. In 2017, core STEM employment had increased by 6.3%, which is equivalent to more than six times the total rise in the UK’s overall employment rate.

Unfortunately, women only share a small percentage of this. According to STEM Women, an online site that provides inclusion and diversity recruitment resources, women in the STEM workforce in 2016 was 21%, 23% in 2017, and 22% in 2018. The good news is that there’s an increasing number of women who chose to study STEM subjects in college. In 2016, over 200,000 women graduated from STEM fields, higher than 140,000 in 2009. Unfortunately, the number of men choosing STEM subjects in college is rising much faster than the number of women.

As a result, the gender gap in STEM does not only remain but is actually growing. Statistics show that the percentage of women with STEM degrees has declined from 25% to 24%. If the trend continues, this number is going to be even lower in the future. The gender pay gap very much persists in these fields as well. Previous reports show that women in STEM jobs are paid an average of 89 cents per each dollar that men in STEM make. The wage gap is even larger in some fields. For instance, female chemists earn 30% less than male chemists.

A recent study by the UN revealed that women continue to be excluded from participating fully in STEM fields. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women - an underrepresentation that occurs in every region in the world.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) also showed there are only 18.5% of female researchers in South and West Asia, with women accounting for less than 15% of researchers in India. Female engagement averages around 40% for researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East states, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe.



Gender Gap in STEM Fields

Many people claim they do not believe the stereotype that girls and women are not as good as boys and men in math and science. Unfortunately, a 2010 research report by the American Association of University of Women (AAUW) revealed that even individuals who consciously refute gender and science stereotypes can still hold that belief at an unconscious level. These beliefs can even become more powerful than explicitly held beliefs and values simply because we are not aware of them. 

Due to these gender stereotypes and gender biases, girls and women are hesitant to pursue careers in science-related fields. These perceptions are largely influenced by the movie industry, with only less than a third of all big-screen speaking roles are played by females. On-screen, studies show seven times more male STEM roles in movies than female roles and only 12% of characters with identifiable STEM jobs onscreen were women. Also, these negative stereotypes against women affect performance in the academic setting.

A 2019 study conducted by researchers from Stanford University suggested "that standard measures of academic performance are biased against women in quantitative fields" due to the stereotype threat, rather than actual ability or potential. According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, this research aimed to understand the stereotype threat and overall scholastic performance. This shows that women may feel diminished confidence in their abilities when they face reoccurring negative stereotypes threats.



Even in more gender-neutral countries, fewer women enter STEM careers. A study of 1,327 Swedish secondary school students explored why more boys are attracted to STEM subjects at university and more girls are attracted to subjects in the HEED (health, elementary education and domestic) spheres. The findings explained that this is all about  “social belongingness.” Teens tend to feel that they would fit in better in subjects that had more of their own gender. Another important factor is “self-efficacy,” the belief that one can succeed in a domain. According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, people tend to approach domains where we feel we are competent and avoid those we feel we are not.

Indeed, social bias affects women’s progress and career choices. Many continue to view STEM fields as masculine and women in science and engineering jobs as less competent than men unless they are showing considerable success. These stereotypes directly affect women’s motivation and emotional state at their job and in society. As a result, even those few women who end up in STEM positions are more likely to quit. 

Additionally, many colleges, universities, and workplaces aren’t making enough necessary changes to accommodate female students who want to pursue STEM fields. While there are plenty of options and support for girls to develops STEM skills in middle school, this support diminishes after that and so does the number of women in STEM. As a result, fewer girls keep their interest and motivation in science subjects in high school and enroll in STEM degrees.

One of the ways to encourage more girls and women to join STEM fields is to have role models who are relatable and people younger women can look up to and see as themselves in the future. These role models can serve as an inspiration and a mentor to them. Researchers also suggest that "altering the social compositions may reduce the threat" because there is "a threatening cue when working in the presence of numeric majority of the non-stereotyped group."