04/02/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

Women in STEM: It's Time to Redesign the Pipeline

Apparently, a key reason that young women aren't choosing careers in STEM is dating. Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, found concern that their 'geeky' male classmates will present poor social prospects is genuinely one of three key barriers to young women entering STEM (along with concerns that it would be boring, and that they wouldn't be any good at it). This information depressed me for the rest of the day.

Klawe reported her intriguing finding at the Future Tense Women in STEM event in Washington DC last week. She is a role model for college leaders who seek to attract young women to study STEM subjects -- by which I mean science, technology, engineering and mathematics, subjects where men still outnumber women by three to one. Harvey Mudd College has impressively redesigned their teaching methods to even out the gender ratio in their STEM programs. But the main message of the day was that attracting women into STEM is just the first step

Nobel prize winner Carol Greider explained that the issue is not just a deficit of women entering the STEM pipeline; rather, the key challenge is that the pipe is leaky. Once women have entered STEM, at every subsequent stage of their career, they run a gauntlet of subtle practical, psychological and social holes in the way of their promotions, appointment to boards, and other indicators of seniority. While slapping patches on the pipe may help stop some of the leaks and help women get ahead, it is often a simplistic fix because the root of the problem isn't just practical.

Implementing flexible working doesn't fix the leak if women decline it for fear of incurring subtle career penalties. Gender-blind evaluation of candidates for senior jobs doesn't fix the leak if women are tending to minimize their skills compared to men. Ensuring women are shortlisted for STEM vacancies don't fix the leak if hirers still subconsciously choose men over women with the same qualifications anyway. The ways in which things are set up in STEM overwhelmingly seem to favor men in all sorts of obvious and unexpected ways, and the Future Tense event called for reform at the heart of the system: in other words, a redesign of the pipe.

While the event showcased many inspiring role models, I worried that they still seem to be the exception rather than the rule. But then I got chatting to the brilliant women in STEM sitting around my table. Over chocolate cake, they told me about the cool things they are doing in STEM, their start ups, their achievements, and I felt excited -- women leading in STEM isn't so much an aspiration as something that is already happening right now. It just needs to be scaled up.

The following day I was coincidentally a panelist myself, at a Women in STEM event at Georgetown University. I was inspired to hear stories from the other faculty panelists about how far gender equality in STEM had come in their career lifetimes. I was even more inspired by the incredulity with which the students in the audience responded to panelists' stories of past sexism in the workplace. While such stories are sadly still a fact in many places, the students were not willing to accept it today. As they described their own career plans, and asked pertinent questions (not one of them mentioning the trials of finding a boyfriend), it was clear that these smart and inspiring women in STEM have no intention of leaking out of the pipe; rather, they plan to run the distance, have impact, lead and speak on future STEM panels which will no longer need to be labeled for gender.

Women in STEM seem to be reaching a critical mass, and hopefully we'll soon be done with token patches along the STEM career gauntlet. The future in STEM is gender equality. Women are asserting their right to succeed, and that means the leaky pipe is set for a sophisticated and inclusive redesign in this generation. Exciting times.