March 19, 2017; Los Angeles Daily News
Schools and celebrated nonprofits like Girls Who Code are making great strides in encouraging female students to embark on careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—related fields. But that pathway narrows considerably by the time young women reach college and then actually choose their careers.
Girls today compose about half the nation’s enrollment in high school science and math classes. They perform as well as boys on standardized tests. But, as NPQ and many others have long observed, progress is still needed in addressing the persistent dearth of women in STEM careers.
You might mistakenly assume the battle was already won, given the success of the widely acclaimed movie Hidden Figures, the story of the brilliant African American women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, working at NASA, who served as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. But according to the nonprofit National Girls Collaborative Project, difficulties young women face when transitioning into college cause many of them to fail to launch into STEM careers.
The percentage of women majoring in STEM fields at California State University, for example, has remained a steady 37 percent since 2007, even though women make up 55 percent of all undergraduates. At the University of California, women make up 52 percent of enrollment, but only 24 percent of those studying for engineering degrees are women. Still, the numbers have improved a bit: In 1999, only 21 percent of those studying engineering at UC were women.
The numbers are even lower in the workplace, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. About 11 percent of physicists and astronomers are women. Just over 10 percent of electrical and computer hardware engineers are women. Fewer than 8 percent of mechanical engineers are women.
These findings raise important questions about the extent to which women continue to experience differential access, encouragement, and opportunity for academic and career advancement. Compare the statistics noted above to these statistics: In 2014, women accounted for 57.3 percent to men’s 42.7 percent of all degrees granted. Women can clearly do the work, but they are choosing other careers. Tech companies such as Google are making efforts to recruit more women and people of color; they train their employees how to reduce bias in the workplace, yet there remains a failure to launch.
The scarcity of women in STEM is not a K–12 or higher education problem. It’s not a government or private industry problem. Though each of these sectors has a vital role to play, more women and minority women entering into and succeeding in STEM careers remains a societal problem. If America’s system of innovation, economic prosperity, and quality of life are to be sustained, the STEM workforce must increasingly reflect the ever-increasing diversity of the American population as U.S. demographics continue to change.
Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson helped to restore the nation’s confidence and keep America in the Space Race. These heroines overcame the outrages of the Jim Crow era and crossed gender lines to inspire generations of Americans to dream big. At least in the movie, they seemed to grow more and more confident in each scene. Their “no-problem-sir” demeanor was emboldened by their passion for science. Our generation, everyone included, needs to keep dreaming big.—James Schaffer