In recent years, hundreds of thousands of women have pursued degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. An education in these disciplines often leads to competitive salaries and ample job opportunities.
However, women in STEM often face a challenging set of circumstances that can alter their educational journey and career path. Although women make up more than half the college-educated workforce, only 28 percent of the STEM workforce is women.
Women in STEM make 16 percent less than their male counterparts, on average, according to 2017 data provided by the Economics and Statistics Administration. While these numbers have gradually improved over the last two decades, women still face many obstacles in these male-dominated fields.
Learn more about the challenges women in STEM experience in college programs, as well as ways to navigate through these difficulties.
Navigating College as a Woman in STEM
Abby Hawley's path to an engineering degree was almost perfect. Buoyed by a lifelong affinity for math and a motivation to work with green technology, Hawley fit perfectly in Northwestern's environmental engineering program. Once enrolled, small classes and a diverse department helped her feel at home in the program.
Hawley also credits talented and engaging professors for further spurring her desire to learn.
"One of my favorite professors studied sustainability and sustainable cities. She would give seminars and lectures, and they were so hopeful about the future, and just really inspiring," says Hawley. "Whenever I felt down about what I was studying, those would always motivate me to stick with it."
Hawley's college experience is an ideal model for all women interested in higher education, and STEM fields in particular. In recent years, the popularity of STEM degrees has risen on campuses across the country. Many of these programs directly prepare graduates for work in a relevant field, and the vast majority of STEM degrees offer loftier projected salaries than other academic disciplines.
Traditionally, these subjects have predominantly attracted male students, particularly at the advanced level. In 2014, only 40 percent of STEM graduates with doctoral degrees were women, a figure that has not budged in the past decade.
The gender gap is particularly pronounced in engineering and computer science, where nearly four out of every five doctoral graduates in 2014 were men.
Still, millions of women pursue degrees in STEM fields. STEM department chairs across the country are recruiting women into their fields, actively cultivating an open and inclusive environment for students from all backgrounds.
Student interest in STEM degrees has grown significantly in recent decades. While many students are naturally interested in these subjects, the increase in STEM degrees is largely fueled by the abundant job opportunities and competitive salaries awaiting graduates. According to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse, the number of bachelor's degrees earned in science and engineering grew 19 percent between 2009 and 2013. In contrast, degrees earned in non-STEM fields increased by just nine percent during the same period. The NSC also projects occupations in STEM to grow by nearly 25 percent through 2020.
Graduates from STEM fields also do well financially. According to a 2016 study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students with bachelor's degrees in engineering are projected to earn an average of approximately $65,000 in their first year at work. That's the highest salary for any field, and critically, all 15 subfields of engineering in the sample featured an average salary north of $60,000. Computer science followed engineering, and math and sciences majors came next; on average, these degree-holders are expected to earn an average salary of $61,000 and $55,000 respectively. By comparison, business is the only other broad field with an average salary north of $50,000, and most education majors are projected to earn less than $40,000 in their first year as professionals.
Average Salaries by Discipline | Bachelor's Degree
|Broad Category||2016 Average Salary|
|Math & Sciences||$55,087|
|Agriculture & Natural Resources||$48,729|
It isn't just job security, of course. Students enjoy taking courses that directly prepare them for their career, and many like the practical nature of the material they encounter in STEM classes. Whether motivated by academic or career interests though, majoring in STEM pays off.
Average Hourly Earnings by Gender and Occupation
Challenges Facing Women in STEM
Smart, gifted in math, and motivated to build things, Sierra Gernhart was a natural fit for the University of Washington's civil engineering program. Civil engineering is a competitive major at UW--not all students endeavoring to major in the subject are granted admission into the program--and she worked hard to secure her place in the field.
"Early on, I realized I was going to have to study a lot, more than many of my peers," says Gernhart.
Gernhart also knew she would be studying in a male-dominated field. Even though UW has an above average percentage of women engineers--and one of the highest percentages of female faculty members in the country--only three of every 10 civil engineering students are women. Gernhart also noticed that, subconsciously or not, some of her male classmates doubted her abilities.
"Someone would ask about a problem, and I'd give them the answer I got and the process I went through. Then they'd ask another guy, get the same answer, and go 'oh ok' and write that down."
Gernhart stresses that she rarely faced overt discrimination, and that she enjoyed learning from the vast majority of her professors. "They kept me going."
But episodes like the one described above made Gernhart aware of the field's demographic composition, and how many peers and future colleagues would question her skills as an engineer simply because of her gender.
"It motivated me to work harder. But it also made me feel like I had to be perfect."
That feeling is not uncommon to women throughout STEM disciplines, where males outnumber females more than three to one. Regrettably, it's a reality that carries over to the workplace. A 2016 report from the National Science Foundation found that while women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S., they represent only around 29 percent of the STEM workforce. For minority women, the disparity is even greater.
In 2015, minority women made up fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.
The small proportion of women STEM students who progress to STEM careers is similarly explicable. Whether by unconscious bias--a 2012 study found that science faculty members at research universities rated identical applications as more competent when men submitted them--or established culture, women find themselves in difficult academic and professional circumstances.
Isis H. Settles, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State, writes: "For female STEM undergraduate students, feeling that one's STEM major has a negative climate (i.e., is more competitive, alienating, and hostile) is associated with lower psychological well-being (i.e., greater depression and lower self-esteem) and poorer academic performance perceptions."
These feelings in turn dissuade some women in STEM from pursuing jobs in the field, and encourage some women already in this field to seek other passions.
Several factors influence the gender gap, and combined, can create a difficult environment for women to thrive. For Eve Riskin, the associate dean of diversity and access for the engineering department at the University of Washington, the culture in many STEM departments is off-putting to women students.
"There are just a bunch of negative stereotypes," Riskin says when asked to describe her largest obstacles in attracting women to engineering programs. She was also part of an at-times hostile environment.
"There are people who believe women aren't as smart or talented as men. There are people who believe that certain women only were admitted because they are women."
Riskin, who holds a master's and doctoral degree in electrical engineering from Stanford, also cites the lack of women in faculty positions.
"I was in higher education for 10 years, and I never had a female professor," she says.
This cultural explanation shines light on a curious pattern across STEM disciplines. While men account for the majority of all STEM students, the gender gap is much smaller in fields outside of engineering and computer science. Nearly half of the students majoring in math, statistics, physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy are women, as are approximately 60 percent of biology graduates.
Women's participation in these majors has remained relatively flat over time--and has actually slowly declined roughly proportionally with a small uptick in engineering and computer science over the past 15 years--but the pattern is clear: there is a notable gender gap in most STEM fields and an enduring, massive one in engineering and computer science.
Does the lack of women in certain STEM fields discourage many women from pursuing a degree, while alienating some of those who remain? Recent research suggests yes.
In her article "The Five Biases Pushing Women Out of STEM", UC Hastings Law Professor Joan C. Williams echoed Riskin's frustrations and added some of her own. While Williams's research examined women working in STEM fields, her work nonetheless relates to academic settings. Her finding that women are pushed to embody specific gender roles particularly resonates.
"Women need to behave in masculine ways to be seen as competent--but women are expected to be feminine," she explains.
More than a third of the women Williams surveyed felt pressured to play a traditional female role in their interactions with colleagues, and over half reported backlash for behaviors perceived as masculine, such as "speaking their minds directly or being decisive."
This double standard was perhaps best captured by Settles, who says that "the cultural stereotype of the scientist as objective, rational, and single-minded is consistent with prescribed norms for men, but counter to stereotypes and prescribed norms for women."
Even well-intentioned professors can be ham-handed. Riskin recounts: "my best friend walked into a class in her first year of grad school school, and the professor saw her and was like 'oh look, a woman!' And then for 10 minutes, he asked his class, 'why aren't there more women here?'"
Succeeding in the Field
A quick review of the challenges embroiling women in STEM invites a question: why is the gender gap, particularly in heavily male-dominated fields, not wider? The simple answer is that, while the challenges described above are real, many students are able to overcome them. Finding a department with a less-pronounced gender gap, such as the environmental engineering program that Hawley studied in, is one path.
Mostly though, many students find that the obstacles facing women in STEM fields are not insurmountable. As Gernhart says, "the gender gap will only stop you if you let it."
Broadly, it helps to find a comfortable situation to work and study in. Students from all backgrounds can succeed in a healthy culture regardless of its demographic structure. And while it's tricky to find the right department before you enroll in school--particularly if you are undecided about your major--there are a number of good signs and red flags to monitor as you evaluate your target schools.
One of the most important aspects to evaluate is cultural. Many female engineers value a diverse environment, and they should look at the composition of both students and professors in departments under their consideration.
Perhaps more importantly, students should evaluate the student experience at each target school. This may be difficult to monitor second-hand, but a little bit of legwork upfront can help students find a space optimally conducive to learning before they ever step foot on campus.
One key is finding a program that takes a student-centric approach to teaching, such as Harvey Mudd's computer science program.
In response to flat enrollment rates in the major, the computer science department overhauled its compulsory introductory class in 2006, replacing flat assignments--such as building squares from asterisks--with dynamic projects that allowed students to build interactive games and simulations. Harvey Mudd saw a surge in student interest in the program. And, as department chair Ran Libeskind-Hadas noticed, many of them were women.
"In 2003, three out of our 27 students were women," said Libeskind-Hadas. "Now, we're above 40 percent most years."
The revamped curriculum is just one attractive feature at Harvey Mudd. The school also offers small class sizes, which allows for individual attention, and critically, six of the school's 14 faculty members are women.
While Libeskind-Hadas rightly notes that people from either gender can effectively mentor any student, he does believe that the diversity has helped the school flatten the gender imbalance: "It definitely helps having role models and enthusiastic faculty members who are women."
The success Harvey Mudd has had in attracting women to the field further suggests that there should not be an inherent gender gap in computer science, nor in any other STEM field for that matter. Citing several Eastern European countries as an example of places without a pronounced gender gap, Libeskind-Hadas argues that the demographic split in the U.S. is a cultural problem. Still, he's optimistic, and believes that "culture can change."
Riskin agrees, dismissing research that suggests a gender gap is the product of anything besides a web of social and cultural factors.
"Until women who are in the field feel they are being treated equally, I reject that."
Scholarships for Women in STEM
- Admiral Grace Murray Hopper Scholarship
Freshman computer science and computer engineering students are eligible to apply to this award. Three winners are chosen, each receiving $1,500. Applications for freshmen are due May 1, 2017.
- Alpha Omega Epsilon Scholarships
Students must be enrolled in or accepted to an accredited undergraduate or graduate science or engineering program. GPA requirements differ depending on the specific scholarship prize. Alpha Omega offers two $500 awards and one $1,000 scholarship. Deadline for 2017-18 academic year to be announced.
- American Association of University Women Fellowships
These awards are open to women students in select male-dominated fields. Awards range from $5,000 to $18,000. Students must be enrolled at an American college. Deadlines for 2017-18 TBA.
- Anne Maureen Whitney Barrow Memorial Scholarship
This $7,000 award is available to all engineering undergraduates. The scholarship is renewable and re-opens every four to five years. The deadline for freshmen is May 1,2017.
- B.J. Harrod Scholarship
Applicants must be attending an accredited engineering or computer science program, and have earned a 3.5 GPA. The scholarships awards two-$1,000 prizes. The application deadline for 2017-18 is TBA.
- Judith McManus Price Scholarship
Women and minorities in an approved planning accreditation board program are eligible for this $2,000-$4,000 scholarship. Students must have a demonstrable financial need. Applications are due in April or May annually; exact date for 2017-18 TBA.
- Lucile B. Kaufman Women's Scholarship
This scholarship is awarded to women undergraduates in engineering or manufacturing. Students must have earned a GPA of at least 3.0. The application deadline for 2017-18 is TBA; the application opens in November 2017.
- M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship
This one-year prize awards students with up to $45,000. The fellowship is intended for women who have already begun work on their PhD in physics. Applicants must be legal residents of the U.S. or Canada, and should demonstrate their affiliation with the school they are obtaining their degree from. The application deadline is June 1, 2017.
- Mary Gunther Memorial Scholarship
This scholarship awards two, one-year, $3,000 prizes to applicants. Applicants must be sophomore, junior, or senior students. Preference is given to architectural engineering or environmental engineering majors. There is also a separate prize for freshman students. Applications for 2017-18 TBA.
- Michigan Council of Women in Technology
The MCWIT offers five scholarships to women pursuing a major in a technology-related field. Prizes vary between single-year awards worth $3,000 to renewable prizes worth up to $20,000. The application deadline for 2017-18 is TBA; specific dates will be available in October.
- The Schafer Prize
Recipients of the Schafer Prize must be undergraduate students nominated by someone in the broader mathematical community. Students can be in any major, but must demonstrate excellence in mathematics. Award amounts vary. The nomination deadline is October 1st annually.
- Society of Automotive Engineers Women Engineers Scholarships
The Society of Automotive Engineers offers awards to women in a relevant STEM field for freshman-senior students and for graduate and PhD students. Applicants must include their GPA, SAT scores, official transcripts, and in some cases, a testimonial. Award amounts and application deadlines vary.
- The Priscilla Carney Jones Scholarship
This scholarship is awarded to junior or senior undergraduate women in chemistry. Applicants should have a GPA of 3.25 or better. Recipients receive a $1,500 prize; the application deadline is May 1, 2017.
- The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
Recipients receive between $1,500 and $3,500. Applicants must be studying biology, and should either be in graduate school or in the last year or two of their undergraduate program. The application deadline for 2017-18 is TBA.