There are still comparatively few women working in science and technology. Recent studies show that only 23% of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals are women, and 27% of these are likely to leave their job within the first year.
So, why aren’t more women entering and remaining in science and technology? What’s causing this gender gap?
We’re drawing on data from a spring 2016 survey of 163 women between the ages of 15-46 from 16 countries around the world.
From their stories, we learn about the effects women’s experiences have on their pursuit of higher education in science, technology, engineering, and maths. We have discovered some interesting insights.
Having a plan
To start, we’ll take a look at our participants’ early life experiences and how their plans are affected by their childhood interests or mentors.
Our data indicates that career paths are influenced very early on by childhood interests. One participant said that, “One of the main reasons why I am so involved in math and CS [Computer Science] now is because I was exposed to both subjects at a very young age.”
This trend can be seen from the bar graph below, which compares our survey participants’ childhood interests to their 10-year plans.
On the horizontal axis, each childhood interest is listed along with a bar representing the corresponding 10-year plan responses. The pink bars are the percentages of women planning to pursue a STEM career; the green bars are the percentages of women planning to pursue a non-STEM career, or there was no indication of a career plan.
Those who had technology or science-based childhood interests were more likely to plan for a science or tech career
At least 52% of respondents with an interest in technology or science as a child had a 10-year plan involving a STEM career. This rose to 76% for those with an affinity for tech.
The 33% of young women who lacked exposure to science or technology said they were more likely to go into other areas instead.
Having a mentor
Childhood interests were not the only early life factors affecting their career choices. Mentors also played an important role in their plans for the future. According to one of our participants, “[My mentor] has taught me a lot about being a woman out in the real world and has helped me choose what I want to do.”
We can see this by comparing their mentors (on the horizontal axis) to their 10-year plans.
More than half of women with no mentor or with an unrelated male mentor did not plan to pursue a STEM career. By contrast, women with an unrelated female mentor were the most likely to pursue STEM, with 68% of them indicating a STEM-related career plan.
It appears that women are most encouraged when they have another successful woman as an inspiration. It’s possible that male mentors are not as easy to relate to, and made them feel like they didn’t belong in the relevant fields.
Getting more women interested in STEM careers
There are a number of steps we can take to get more women in science and tech:
- Talk to young girls about science and tech to give them the opportunity to explore those subjects from a younger age.
- Encourage the women you know to become mentors for other women and girls who are just starting out on their career paths. If you’re a woman in science or tech, consider becoming a mentor yourself.
- Establish a mentorship program within your organization to empower female employees in science and tech.
- Implement more science and tech courses in early education to increase young girls’ exposure to these fields.
We can change the future if we work together.
This has just been the start of our exploration into the experiences of women in science, technology, engineering, or maths. Keep an eye out for more posts as we look at other influences affecting women’s careers.
Andrea Lewis, Sabah Rahman, Raiya Al-Ansari
Cruz, E. (2016, July 27). The Gap Between Women and Men in STEM and What You Can Do About It [Web log post].
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