7 Ways to Recruit More Women into Tech Careers
When you think of an engineer, what type of person comes to mind? Chances are, you think of a middle aged white guy. As a high school student, I envisioned either a sea of men in an engineering office, wearing khaki pants and buttoned-up oxford shirts, or men in steel-toed boots, safety glasses, and hard hats, supervising a factory or work site. I’ve been in engineering and technology for almost 15 years now, and I’ll be the first to tell you – that stereotype is pretty accurate in most workplaces.
Let’s start by exploring the current status of girls pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers.
We know from numerous studies that girls and boys perform approximately the same in science testing through about fourth grade.1 Yet by college age, a significant gender gap persists. As shown below, this isn’t just an American problem. This is an international problem.
According to the National Science Foundation, 57% of undergraduates in the U.S. are women.2 However, the representation of women in STEM fields is dismal.3 Women are well-represented in biology (52.9%), and reasonably represented in chemistry, materials science, environmental engineering, geoscience, computer science, computer software, and computer programming (20-33%). Representation in the other engineering fields is bleak:
- Chemical engineering: 13.1% women
- Civil engineering: 10.4% women
- Electrical engineering: 7.7% women
- Mechanical engineering: 6.7% women
This isn’t data from 1949 – it’s from 2009, and these statistics are real. I would be hesitant to believe it myself, if it weren’t for my personal experience. My undergraduate and master’s degrees are in physics. In my subject-specific courses, I was typically the only girl.
America is facing a significant shortage of technical expertise, and the most logical way to fill this gap is to recruit from the untapped potential of women who could excel in STEM positions just like their male counterparts. Increasing diversity in the workforce leads to more creativity in problem solving, and fewer mistakes.4
What can we do as a society, as a major engineering hub city, as a university, and as individuals to recruit more women into STEM? I’ve summarized a number of suggestions from many sources for us to consider:
1. Intervene early
Studies show that girls start to lose interest early. While 15 year-old girls still perform similarly to boys, their attitudes and confidence toward math and science are worse.1 Some studies suggest girls begin to change their viewpoints as early as third or fourth grade. To maintain interest, there must be early and consistent outreach to young girls, not only to maintain their interest and confidence in science and math, but also to provide context about future career options and mentorship through successful STEM role models – all of which are discussed below:
2. Educate young women about STEM jobs and STEM careers
Many females shy away from the STEM fields because of the stereotypes about the types of jobs available, the types of industry available, and the job responsibilities in STEM. As a student, this was by far my biggest roadblock to pursuing STEM. I didn’t want to work in a factory, and I didn’t want to work in a cubicle farm. I didn’t know what other career options even existed.
I wish I could tell my 15-year-old self that STEM goes far beyond the boundaries of a factory or office building, and engineering isn’t just about cars. The basis of STEM is problem solving and experimenting – and it crosses all industries and geographies. (If you are interested in automotive engineering, Detroit is the place to be!) I have friends scattered across the U.S. and the world in industries as diverse as aerospace, defense, medical, manufacturing, food, mining, business, law, agriculture, and education. You can go anywhere and do anything with a STEM degree, but our young people don’t know that. Furthermore, STEM jobs tend to be among the most lucrative around, with big growth and big pay.5 Women in STEM out-earn women in other fields by 33%.6
3. Provide mentorship from successful women in STEM
Mentorship is important for anybody in STEM, and young women lack positive academic female role models. When girls turn on the TV, they are inundated with a culture obsessed with appearance and sex-appeal which doesn’t appear to place value on a woman’s intellectual capabilities. Instead of hearing about strong female leaders in STEM, such as Mary Barra (CEO of GM), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), or Dr. Wanda Austin (President and CEO of Aerospace Corporation), young girls turn on the TV and see the Kardashians. It’s no wonder girl’s aren’t stampeding to become scientists.
Here at Wayne State, the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (COSW) has partnered with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to provide a speed mentoring program for female engineering students, addressing points two and three. This year, 22 female engineering students met with 21 women from diverse engineering professions – more than half were WSU alumnae! – for an evening of mentoring and career discussions. Students and mentors discussed how to handle the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated profession, what types of careers are available, and even basic points, such as how to get a co-op job or handle making mistakes in the workplace. We found that providing this network not only benefited our engineering students, but also helped our mentors to develop a network of women across Detroit that they can look to for support.
4. Educate students and staff about implicit (and explicit) bias in STEM
A 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article found that experienced science faculty at research universities were more likely to hire a male applicant over a female when all qualifications were equal except the applicant’s name. This bias was present in both male and female faculty.7 Does that sound absurd? It gets worse.
In 2015, a pair of researchers submitted a manuscript to PLoS-ONE which discussed gender differences in postdoctoral academic positions. Their paper was initially rejected, in part because the female co-authors had not included a male author on the manuscript, which, ironically, was based on gender bias.8 While this example is extreme, it shows that there are still cases of blatant bias that women must occasionally contend with as well.
With treatment like this, it’s no wonder that women sometimes undervalue or underestimate themselves. They grow up in a world that doesn’t expect them to achieve as much as men. How can this issue be addressed? In a study by Spencer et al, two groups of college students were given identical tests.9 In one group, students were told before the test that men typically out-perform the women. Not surprisingly, in that group, the men did out-perform the women. However, in the second group, students were told there wasn’t a gender difference in performance. In this group, scores were almost equal. Thus, if we as educators, parents, and mentors regularly emphasize to students (both male and female) that women are just as capable as men, we can begin to change that gender bias. If we remember that we, ourselves, might be inadvertently favoring males, we can be more mindful when admitting students, grading exams, or hiring assistants.
5. Help girls develop spatial skills
Boys consistently out-perform girls in spatial skills, such as mental rotation. However, this is a skill that can be quickly learned and improved through practice and training. Playing with blocks and other building toys and practicing drawing from different perspectives helps girls bridge the gap. Dr. Sheryl Sorby has performed extensive research to develop curriculum to help freshmen-level students improve their spatial performance.10
6. Develop a culture to recruit female students
According to a report by the American Association of University Women2, relatively simple changes to the recruitment process can impact girls’ intention to pursue STEM. One simple change is to actively recruit female students, rather than passively waiting for females to apply. Just knowing that they are valued and have the backing of a college, department, program, or faculty member behind them can inspire the confidence young women need to pursue a technical degree. Some departments and programs have experience requirements which a girl may not have had an opportunity or courage to pursue in high school. Thus, the female student may be discouraged from applying to the specific program because she doesn’t have that experience, even though she is more than capable of catching up to those with prior experience. Changing those requirements to make them more inclusive or making the required experience part of the first-year curriculum2 allows ladies to enter the program at the same level as their male peers and gives them an early opportunity to do career-related work early on in their education.
7. Develop a culture to retain female students
Studies have shown that women retain interest in technical subjects better if they have an understanding of the broad applications of the science or technology early on in the learning process.11 First year or introductory-level courses that talk about what can be done with the subject matter can help female students understand the importance of difficult concepts before or while they learn the technical aspects.
Developing a strong support network for women within the college, department, and university is essential as well. This includes employing quality female STEM faculty, who can also serve as mentors from point three; providing opportunities for female-advocacy clubs and student organizations, such as SWE; and having university-wide recognition of women and women’s’ issues. At Wayne State, this need is met, in part, through COSW, which provides a diverse range of outreach programs across a range of subjects important to women.
I hope this post has given you some food for thought and got you thinking about how to bring more women into STEM fields. Think of the women in your life: your students, your daughters, your sisters, and your friends. Who can you offer encouragement and empowerment to in their pursuit of a STEM career?
- It’s time to unleash girls’ potential in STEM. (2015). Retrieved from http://noceilings.org/stem/
- How many undergraduate students enroll in U.S. institutions? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/edTool/data/college-02.html
- Hill, C. (n.d.). Why so few? Women in science, technology, enginering, and math (short) [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.aauw.org/resource/why-so-few-women-in-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-owerpoint-presentation-short/
- Page, S.E. (2007). The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Vilorio, D. (2014, Spring). STEM 101: Intro to Tomorrow’s Jobs. Occupational Outlook Quarterly. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2014/spring/art01.pdf
- Women in STEM. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/women
- Moss-Racusin, C.A., Dovidio, J.F., Brescoli, V.L., Graham, M.J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (41), 16474-16479. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474
- Woolston, C. (2015, May 5). Sexist review causes Twitter storm: Disparaging comments to female authors prompt more calls for double-blind refereeing. Nature, 521 (7549). Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/sexist-review-causes-twitter-storm-1.17457
- Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 13. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103198913737
- Sorby, S.A. (2009, February.) Educational research in developing 3-D spatial skills for engineering students. International Journal of Science Education, 31( 3), 459-480. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09500690802595839?journalCode=tsed20
- Higher Education Research Institute, 2007, Survey of the American freshman: Special tabulations (Los Angeles, CA), cited in National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, 2009, Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2009 (NSF 09-305) (Arlington, VA), Table B-8.
Rachel Kast Ph.D. is a research assistant professor in the Departments of Surgery and Biomedical Engineering and a commissioner on the WSU President’s Commission on the Status of Women. She is the chapter advisor to the WSU section of the Society of Women Engineers and is active in STEM outreach with students of all ages. To learn more about STEM, STEM careers, and Dr. Kast’s outreach, visit her website www.STEMpowerment.com.