Sunday, September 24, 2017 | ePaper

Science is (also) for women

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Elizabeth Koprowski :
There's no denying hard numbers. According to most estimates, men outnumber women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In recent years, there have been concerted efforts to both identify why women are less likely than men to study and pursue STEM subjects and to encourage female interest in STEM fields. Still, in the US women make up just under a quarter of STEM employees while representing nearly half the country's workforce. And the same applies to countries around the world. In the UK, fewer female STEM graduates go on to work in STEM industries and while more than 40% of British mathematics students are female, only 6% go on to professorships in the field. Even in the Nordic region, where women have impressive parity in the workforce, some female STEM graduates struggle to find job opportunities. And in Asia, only three countries were able to demonstrate equality in the male-to-female ratio of scientific researchers.
Historically, women have been under-represented in the STEM fields, but given the recent efforts made by countries, governments, and educational institutions to rectify the disparities, it seems surprising that women are still so outnumbered in STEM industries. It's even more surprising when one realizes that STEM fields are prime occupations for female graduates. And here's why.
Governments around the world recognize that the gender gap in STEM fields is no laughing matter. In fact, the lack of women in STEM fields is a major concern for some countries, where women make up a significant part of the workforce, and their absence in STEM fields indicates a pretty hefty loss of revenue. In Scotland, for example, the lack of women in STEM occupations represents more than £150million in income. It's not surprising then that countries and organizations around the world are working to encourage women to pursue STEM studies and enter the workforce. Mentorship programs are one of the most popular forms of initiatives because many experts believe that women fail to become interested in STEM subjects due to a lack of female role-models in the sector. The Million Women Mentors program (USA) and the National Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Malaysia are just two of many initiatives aimed at bringing women in STEM fields together. Mobility and retention programs, like the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program and the Science in Australia Gender Equality program, also strive to address the challenges women face in STEM studies and careers. Still, women remain marginalized in specific areas of the STEM sector, and when organizations like the American Chemical Society give out awards, men are disproportionately represented.
But all these initiatives and encouragement are not without some positive results. In fact, there are indications that the future of women in STEM fields is looking brighter. First, STEM student numbers are not nearly as disparate as the workforce. While men still significantly outnumber women in engineering and computer sciences, most of the other STEM sectors show growing equality, and in some areas, like biology, women outnumber men. And employers want to hire female STEM graduates. Most industries now recognize that diversity is important, and in the STEM sector women represent a much-needed demographic. So why are women still outnumbered by men. Some research suggests that the historical lack of women in STEM fields has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, where women fail to apply for or engage with STEM careers because they believe they will not be considered. But new figures indicate otherwise. In at least one study, researchers found that when employers considered an equally qualified male and female candidates, the female candidate was selected nearly 70% of the time. Other statistics show that companies with female leadership have better investment returns and that diversity in the workplace equals greater employee retention rates.
So what's the deal? If governments and educational organizations want to help women succeed in STEM field, and employers want to hire them, why are women still under-represented. Well, first off, women are not under-represented in every field. In fact, in mathematics, physical sciences, and biosciences, women earn nearly if not more than half of all bachelors degrees. Women are significantly outnumbered only in computer sciences and engineering degrees.  At the PhD level, women outnumber men in biosciences, and in the United States, more than 50% of all medical scientists are women. These figures seem to indicate that women are interested in STEM fields and do participate in certain areas of the workforce. The continuing shortfall seems to come mainly from the technology and engineering sectors of STEM industries, but these sectors make up a significant portion of the economy in many countries. This means that while women have made inroads into certain STEM fields, there's still lots of room for improvement
Women won't always be outnumbered in STEM fields. Scientists and educators used to believe that one of the reasons that STEM fields lacked female participation was because women were less suited - both intellectually and temperamentally - to scientific research. This is, of course, nonsense and more and more women are going on to study STEM. Employers want female STEM graduates and governments around the world want to help women study STEM subjects. So, why wait? If you have a passion for computer programming, or chemical engineering, or microbiology, find a program and explore the many exciting opportunities offered in science and technology!
Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA.

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