The Biggest Barriers for Women in STEM

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by Staff Writers

Updated May 6, 2022

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The Biggest Barriers for Women in STEM

Careers in STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, report high earnings and strong demand. In a 2017 report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that 93% of STEM jobs paid significantly higher-than-average salaries, with the average STEM salary exceeding $87,500 per year — nearly twice as much as the average non-STEM income.

The BLS also projects more than twice as fast growth for STEM careers versus non-STEM occupations between 2019 and 2029.

Although women’s representation in STEM has increased dramatically since 1970, those strides have leveled off in recent years.

If STEM careers offer premier growth and earnings, what are the barriers to working in STEM? For one, most STEM careers require a college degree. On top of that, women face unique obstacles when pursuing STEM careers.

Although women's representation in STEM has increased dramatically since 1970, those strides have leveled off in recent years. In fact, the number of women working in computer fields — the largest-growing STEM field — dropped 7 percentage points from 1990 to 2016.

So what's the overall outlook for women interested in technical fields? Here, we take a deep dive into the challenges, as well as the opportunities, for women looking to establish a career in STEM.

A Short History of Women in STEM

Perhaps surprisingly, many core STEM disciplines used to be dominated by women. In an era before computers, women performed many of the calculations to measure the size of the universe or determine rocket trajectories.

The early history of computing relied heavily on women.

Similarly, the early history of computing relied heavily on women. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), an English mathematician hailed as the first computer programmer, pioneered the field well before the invention of computers. Women also programmed the ENIAC computer in the 1940s, manually connecting 18,000 vacuum tubes to calculate ballistics trajectories.

Up until just a century ago or so, women were largely excluded from STEM leadership roles and denied credit for their contributions. For example, when Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), who had been hired by the Harvard College Observatory in the early 20th century as a human "computer," discovered over 2,000 variable stars, her male boss published her research without acknowledging the work she had done.

In the past few decades, women have made major strides in STEM. In 1970, women made up only 7% of the STEM workforce; this percentage grew to 23% by 1990. Since then, however, these gains have leveled off. As of 2020, women comprise around 25% of the STEM workforce — only a slight increase in 30 years.

Social, Cultural Factors Push Women Away From STEM

Data shows that women make up a smaller percentage than men of the STEM workforce. But why?

A big part of this stems from the fact that women face unique challenges when pursuing STEM careers. Stereotypes about women's abilities start early, often undermining the confidence of girls in their mathematical and technical abilities. Even girls as young as 3 or 4 can fall prey to these stereotypes.

Furthermore, some educators underestimate girls' math abilities, encouraging them, either openly or tacitly, to abandon their STEM ambitions. For instance, according to several studies, teachers awarded lower grades to girls for the same math work as boys.

Gender stereotypes also shape career ambitions. When asked to draw a scientist or mathematician, girls drew a man twice as often as they did a woman, and boys almost always drew a man.

As a result of these social and cultural factors, girls typically begin opting out of STEM courses at an early age, despite being just as capable of thriving in STEM careers as their male peers. In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress measured boys' and girls' proficiency in technology and engineering subjects, and found that girls outperformed boys by 3%.

“[Women’s] departure [from STEM] means a loss of knowledge and expertise from STEM that is disadvantageous for innovation and scientific inquiry.” Source: — Erin Cech, Sociologist at the University of Michigan

But by the undergraduate level, women shift away from STEM majors. While women earn more bachelor's degrees overall than men, they account for just 36% of STEM bachelor's degrees. Men also vastly outnumber women in some of the highest-paying majors: 4 in 5 degree-holders in engineering and computer science are men.

Meanwhile, the women who do earn STEM majors and enter the STEM workforce face steep barriers to success. In male-dominated fields, women may feel forced out by exclusionary cultures.

A lack of parental leave policies hurts women more than men. In an eight-year study of STEM professionals, researchers found that 43% of women in STEM careers left their full-time job within 4-7 years of having their first child, while only 23% of men did the same.

"These patterns suggest a roadblock in women's career advancement that their men colleagues do not face to the same degree," said Erin Cech, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of a paper on the study. "Their departure means a loss of knowledge and expertise from STEM that is disadvantageous for innovation and scientific inquiry."

What's more, women don't have nearly as many role models or potential mentors as men. And this problem is even worse for women of color.

Women of Color in STEM Face Unique Challenges

Women of color face some of the biggest hurdles in STEM occupations. Overall, Black and Hispanic Americans remain underrepresented in STEM careers. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that Black Americans make up 9% of STEM workers but 11% of the overall workforce, while Hispanic Americans make up 7% of STEM workers and 16% of the workforce.

In 2018, Black and Hispanic women, along with other underrepresented women of color, made up less than 5% of all scientists and engineers in the U.S.

As with white women, women of color depart from STEM career tracks at every stage of education. Black and Hispanic undergraduates declare STEM majors at the same rate as white students but are more likely to switch majors to pursue a non-STEM degree. At the graduate level, Black and Hispanic women each make up less than 4% of early-career doctorate-holders in science and engineering.

The lack of representation grows worse at the leadership level. In 2016, the National Science Foundation reported that 24% of Black women who earned a doctorate studied a STEM field. Yet in 2017, Black men and women made up only 5% of STEM managers.

Factors Contributing to the STEM Gender Wage Gap

Today, women earn approximately 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Several factors contribute to the gender wage gap, including differences in industries, job titles, and experience.

But even within STEM careers, women consistently earn less than men. According to Pew Research Center, white men working in STEM make $85,000, or $24,000 more per year than white women in STEM — in other words, a 40% higher salary.

The STEM wage gap is greater for Black and Hispanic women. Black women working in STEM make around $52,700 per year, whereas Hispanic women make $52,000 per year.

White men working in STEM make 40% more per year than white women in STEM, but the wage gap is greater for Black and Hispanic women.

Why is there such a large wage gap in the STEM workforce? A December 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that what women major in plays a critical role in the gender wage gap. Within STEM, women tend to choose lower-paying majors, which leads them into different STEM careers than men.

While women account for nearly half of all biological scientists (whose median salary sits at around $82,220), they make up only a quarter of computer and mathematical occupations and a paltry 16% of engineers, many of whom earn over $100,000 a year.

The above study points to a confidence gap that can start as early as elementary school. Stereotypes about women's ability to succeed in STEM drive many women away from majors seen as more technical or challenging.

Nevertheless, the pay gap isn't limited to choice of study. Even within academic majors, women earn lower salaries than men. In 2013, women who majored in computing, mathematics, or engineering earned 82-87% as much as men with the same major.

How to Find Opportunities for Women in STEM

Despite the barriers women continue to face in STEM, there is some good news. Compared with a generation ago, women have many more opportunities to seek out mentors, role models, and support when pursuing STEM careers.

Students also benefit from scholarships encouraging women to pursue STEM degrees. Refer to our guide to learn how to find scholarships. And when it comes to inspiration, STEM majors can learn more about pioneering women in science, technology, and medicine, or check out lists like Crain's Notable Women in STEM.

Mentors help women plan out their careers and advance in their fields. A number of organizations offer mentorship opportunities specifically for women in STEM. For example, Encouraging Women Across All Borders mentors students and early-career professionals. You can also research STEM career paths using the BLS periodic table of STEM careers.

Scholarships for Women in STEM

Graduates with a STEM degree can look for employers committed to pay equity. These policies have particularly been shown to increase the number of Black women holding STEM jobs.

Unfortunately, some of the challenges women face in STEM remain out of women's control. As the 2020 Women in STEM Workforce Index explains, "In an equitable workforce, men and women enjoy equal representation and equal pay. We're not there yet in the fields of STEM."

Women have made enormous strides in STEM over the past few generations. By continuing to push for equal representation and equal pay, women and men can make STEM a more diverse and inclusive field.

Feature Image: sanjeri / E+ / Getty Images