Ellen Ochoa, also known as the first Latina astronaut in space, was told by her physics teacher in college that it was a waste of time for her to take the class because she wouldn’t need it. Luckily, she didn’t listen. Unfortunately, this is one of many disheartening stories from women looking to study science, mathematics, technology and engineering, otherwise known as the heavily male-dominated STEM fields.
The statistics: One-third of workers holding senior positions in STEM fields think a woman would not be promoted to a high position in the company, according to a Center for Talent Innovation study conducted this year, and previous research has shown that many professors teaching STEM doubt the ability of their female students.
Societal bias against women in these fields can affect women from an early age and rule out STEM as a career aspiration. Women also disproportionately experience poverty in higher numbers than men and financial hardships can act as a barrier to education. The result? Low rates of women in these fields and extremely low gender parity compared to other industries.
Last month, John Oliver spoofed the Miss America competition, making fun of everything from the alleged ‘butt glue’ that keeps swimsuits in places to the organization’s misleading numbers about $45 million in scholarships it claims to provide. He also shed some light on the low number of women’s-only scholarships and called out some reputable established women’s scholarship organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers and the Jeanette Rankin Foundation.
Society of Women Engineers CEO Karen Horting said that while gender parity is in sight for women in many fields, this is just not the case in engineering and STEM industries for a number of reasons. “The scholarship program is so important because data shows that the increasingly high costs of education and financial difficulties really act as barriers for women in pursuing STEM fields,” Horting said.
Sue Lawrence, CEO of the Jeanette Rankin scholarship foundation, estimated that the percentage of women going into STEM industries through the scholarship foundation is fewer than 10 percent. The Jeanette Rankin Foundation supports low-income women 35 and older who are looking to get an education.
Part of the problem comes from a lack of women mentors in STEM.
“If you’re talking about low-income women, people often decide what to do and model their behavior on what they’ve seen, what looks like them,” Lawrence said. “So if they’ve grown up in a household of poverty, they know a social worker, they know a teacher, they know a healthcare provider such as a nurse, so these typical ‘female careers’ are heavily represented among our scholars.”
Financial barriers can be much higher road blocks for women as well, especially women who are supporting a family.
“Most of our women self-identify as heads of household and they are usually supporting on average two kids,” Lawrence said. This year, 74 percent of the scholars in her organization are heads of their households but it can range up to 85 percent depending on the year. Further, about half of Jeanette Rankin scholars are the first in their family to go to college.
John Oliver’s shout-out has brought an increase in funds to these scholarship organizations but the biggest bonus is the visibility. While individual donations have been great for the foundation, Horting said she is especially excited about teaming up with new organizations because that is where a lot of the existing funding has come from.
The Society of Women Engineers works with many employers looking to bring more women into their workforce, but it’s a small pool of women in the field.
“The pipeline is pretty narrow,” Horting said. “In order to get more women in the pipeline and potentially in these organizations, to be creating the future innovations that are going to fuel our growth as a country, you’ve got to have more women graduating with those degrees. So you’re telling employers, here’s a way you can have a direct impact on the future workforce by supporting scholarships for women.”
There are low percentages of women studying STEM subjects but the rate of retention in the field is even lower. For example, psychology research from this year shows that while more than 20 percent of engineering graduates are women, women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers — which means there’s a 40 percent drop-out rate.A reported “boys’ club” atmosphere and hostility from male coworkers make women much less likely to stay on, but Horting and other women’s advocacy groups are working to change the way corporations think of their female employees.
“Organizations that have more diversity have a better bottom line, they have more innovation — it’s better for everybody if you create that inclusive environment,” Horting said.
The Society of Women Engineers recently published an e-book that focuses on ways employers can be more flexible and create an inclusive environment where women are more inclined to stay, an important factor as the cost of recruiting new talent is so high.
“I think a lot of times people will think that women leave for family reasons, while that’s really just 1 in 4,” Horting said. “The other 75 percent leave for things that are really in the employer’s control. Making an environment more inclusive doesn’t only help women, it also helps the entire organization.”
Female talent should be looked at as a big opportunity, said Lawrence, who compares women’s education to slow food, which takes longer to prepare but healthier in the long run.
“Women’s education is about slow change. It takes years. It may take a number of years for a woman to finish a degree, especially if she is working and can only take two classes at a time. And then, it takes a couple of years to get a job and really get on top of your game. We may be talking 7-10 years down the road, and all that time, their children are growing up and receiving the benefits.”
Lawrence said that in the future, she would like to see studies looking into the multi-generational benefits for the kids who are seeing their moms go to college.
“We know that women tend to be the center of a lot of positive change, but are we actually investing in women in this manner? Maybe not, but we could be. We could be a lot more.”