Women in STEM: What You Need to Know Before Putting on the Lab Coat

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Women first outnumbered men in college in 1979, and nationwide women make up 57% of college students. In the US population, women outnumber men by just short of 1%. Curious, then, that men outnumber women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) – in some cases, extravagantly: for example, only 15% of working engineers are women. The statistics are hard to argue, but there is no shortage of argument about the why and the what’s to be done.

Convinced it’s a “pipeline” issue – not enough girls and young women being won over by STEM interests early in their lives – the National Science Foundation has spent the last decade advocating for programs, scholarships, and marketing to encourage girls to take an interest in STEM, the assumption being that more girls going to college for STEM will change the landscape of the field over time.

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And that campaign has worked – the number of women going into STEM degree programs has steadily risen during the 21st century, so much so that many pundits are happy to call the gender gap closed. It’s not, but it’s more complicated than just “men dominate the sciences.” For young women considering a college degree and career in the sciences, Value Colleges has compiled a guide to understanding the complexity of the STEM gender gap.

What Bias Really Means

It’s still very much an open question of where the discrepancy between men and women in STEM comes from, and what can be done to change it. Despite the National Science Foundation’s initiatives to increase women’s presence in STEM, there are many who argue that the problem isn’t as large as perceived, or that it’s not a problem at all. Women and men tend to have different interests and different social needs; as a result, women often go into college programs that are less openly competitive and more nurturing, like humanities and education.

When it comes to STEM, PBS News Hour has found, for instance, that the gender gap is really only confined to engineering and computer science. NSF statistics show that between 1991 and 2010, women earning PhDs in STEM were almost equal to men in every other area:

For the sake of clarity, though, it’s worth noting that in many colleges and universities, social sciences and psychology are not housed in STEM colleges – they are often set apart in their own colleges or schools (often together) and sometimes share space with humanities; in other words, for the purposes of administration and funding, social science and psychology often aren’t STEM.

It’s important to recognize, too, that just because women are earning PhDs at the same rate as men in some areas, like bioscience and mathematics, that doesn’t mean they are finding work in those fields; according to a 2011 Economics and Statistics Administration report, just a third of STEM workers were women (2.5 out of 9.2 million). That’s a noticeable difference. Further data shows that while 40% of male STEM graduates find work in their field, only 25% overall STEM graduates find work – indicating that the missing numbers are women.

Why aren’t women who earn degrees in STEM going into STEM careers? The Harvard Business Review has found that, while family/work balance may be the cause of some women opting out of STEM careers, the more pervasive reason is remaining bias at the hiring level. While college and university recruiters have heard the NSF’s call loud and clear, the job market has yet to catch up; in industry and academia, the people who do the hiring in STEM are still mostly men, and they still tend to see male candidates as superior.

Even for women who go into STEM careers, the HBR found that old-fashioned bias still has a damaging and degrading effect on women:

Those kinds of conditions often lead to women deciding that pursuing their career isn’t worth the hassle, even when they fought through the challenges of earning a master’s or doctoral degree.

Where’s the Money?

The unequal numbers of women in STEM education isn’t just a matter of abstract, pie-in-the-sky dreams about fairness; it’s a situation with real economic impact for the whole population. Professionals in STEM-related fields make some of the highest average salaries in the nation – especially in engineering and computer science, the areas with the largest gender gap. In turn, the fields that are most often stereotyped as women’s professions, like the social sciences, humanities, and education, have the lowest professional salaries.

A 2015 report by the American Association of University Women, like the NSF, finds that the largest gender gap is in engineering and computer science – while the T and E in STEM account for 80% of STEM-related jobs, only 12% of engineers are women, and 26% of computer scientists. And, of course, when college recruiters and academic advisors talk about how hot the STEM job market is, they’re talking about engineering and computers.

The disparity in gender means that professional women are largely cut out of the most lucrative professions, contributing to the overall wage gap that keeps women underpaid in comparison to men. This has a long-term affect on the overall economy, as half the potential workforce gradually drop out or fall into less financially-rewarding career paths, which in turn lowers the overall economic power and standing of women.

It also means that women who do go into STEM find themselves blocked from positions of power, authority, and influence that could gradually sway the field toward more inclusion of women. By the time women get to mid-career, when professionals find their institutional influence growing, most have been weeded from the field, leaving far fewer female voices making policy and advocating for the interests of women.

Doing Diversity Right

Changes in STEM won’t come from outside, though; changing the institutional character of a field happens from within, with intentional choices. The AAUW specifically cites Harvey Mudd College as an example of what colleges could do to make STEM more gender-friendly.

When Harvey Mudd found that their 2003 Computer Science program had only 2 women out of 27 students, they began actively recruiting women and making institutional changes that benefitted women: a more nurturing atmosphere with smaller classes; more female faculty to mentor and role model; and a more innovative, interactive curriculum. Harvey Mudd also began including introductory computer science as a core class for all freshmen, a choice that, according to CS Chair Rans Libeskind-Hadas, “provides students with programming skills and rich and compelling applications that students find relevant and fun.”

It’s worth pointing out that changes like those made at Harvey Mudd aren’t just important for women – requiring introductory computer science classes, making classes more interactive and engaging, and hiring more female faculty benefits all students by making STEM more accessible. By getting more students into STEM, and making STEM less intimidating and more inviting, programs like Harvey Mudd’s make for more well-rounded thinkers and doers.

For many women, STEM appears intimidating, exclusive, and impenetrable – but the same is true for students of many identities and backgrounds. In the 21st century, the concepts and ways of thinking that inform STEM will be increasingly important for life and work. The issue of making STEM more inclusive for women is wrapped up in the issue of making STEM more relevant and accessible for all students. Scientific and technological literacy is one of the most important educational challenges of the 21st century. If women feel more welcome, everyone will.

Scholarships: Opening the Pipeline 

While schools can take the initiative to change their enrollment and recruitment policies, one of the most effective ways to increase diversity in any institution or field is with scholarships designated for minority groups. By removing one of the largest barriers to an education – the cost – scholarships help address the pipeline issue, though it can do nothing about underlying bias.

The following list is in no way intended to be comprehensive; there are so many scholarships offered by so many entities that there is no way to feature them all. We are just hoping to give students a place to start, and to call further attention to some scholarships that are specific to the need. The more interest these scholarships generate, the more other groups will see that they can help.

Some of these sites feature an assortment of individual scholarship opportunities; read carefully to make sure you meet the criteria before applying. Fastweb is another helpful place to search for a variety of scholarships fitting your individual needs.

  1. AAUW – Charity promoting women’s empowerment through education
  2. ALPHA OMEGA EPSILON NATIONAL FOUNDATION – Engineering and Technology society
  3. American Chemical Society – minority students and chemistry-related majors
  4. American Chemical Society – Project Seed Scholarship – HS Students with Chemical Engineering or Chemistry-Related interests
  5. American Chemical Society – Second Career and Master’s students in Chemistry
  6. American Indian Science and Engineering Scholarships – students in Geosciences
  7. ASHRAE – variety of Undergraduate Engineering Scholarships
  8. ASME – scholarships for those entering Mechanical Engineering
  9. BHW Scholarship – All Women STEM Majors eligible
  10. Boise State University – institution-specific scholarships for women
  11. Google Scholarships – Technology Scholarships
  12. Institute of International Education – opportunities for young women in China, India, and Taiwan
  13. L’Oréal – Woman in Science Post-Doc Fellowship program
  14. Maria Goeppert Mayer Award – Physics/Female/PhD level
  15. Michigan Council of Woman in Technology – 5 scholarships available for woman
  16. National Women’s Studies Association – assorted scholarships
  17. Palantir – company-sponsored scholarship specifically for women in STEM
  18. Payscale’s Women in STEM scholarships
  19. Science Ambassador Annual Scholarship for Women pursuing the Sciences – sponsored by Cards Against Humanity
  20. Society of Woman Engineers – multiple scholarships
  21. Space Coast Woman in Defense – organization-sponsored Engineering scholarships


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Aya Andrews


Aya Andrews is a passionate educator and mother of two, with a diverse background that has shaped her approach to teaching and learning. Born in Metro Manila, she now calls San Diego home and is proud to be a Filipino-American. Aya earned her Masters degree in Education from San Diego State University, where she focused on developing innovative teaching methods to engage and inspire students.

Prior to her work in education, Aya spent several years as a continuing education consultant for KPMG, where she honed her skills in project management and client relations. She brings this same level of professionalism and expertise to her work as an educator, where she is committed to helping each of her students achieve their full potential.

In addition to her work as an educator, Aya is a devoted mother who is passionate about creating a nurturing and supportive home environment for her children. She is an active member of her community, volunteering her time and resources to support local schools and organizations. Aya is also an avid traveler, and loves to explore new cultures and cuisines with her family.

With a deep commitment to education and a passion for helping others succeed, Aya is a true inspiration to those around her. Her dedication to her craft, her community, and her family is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence in all aspects of her life.

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ValueColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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