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Recruiting and Supporting Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Careers

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This piece co-authored by Jessica Palek, Employment and Training Associate, Shriver Center

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are widely regarded as critical to the state and national economy, but women remain significantly underrepresented within these disciplines. Despite decades of progress in higher education and the workplace, gender bias in STEM fields inhibits many talented women and girls from entering STEM careers, and in the end, this keeps the United States from meeting the technical-skills demand of the future and from remaining economically competitive in the world.

Recruiting and supporting women and girls in STEM careers requires strong commitment, leadership and coordinated efforts among educators, lawmakers, women's organizations and service providers. Illinois recently launched the Illinois Pathways Initiative, designed to support students' college and career readiness in nine STEM industry sectors: agriculture, food and natural resources; architecture and construction; energy; finance; health science; information technology; manufacturing; research and development; and transportation, distribution, and logistics. The Illinois Pathways Initiative aims to develop new public-private partnerships called "Learning Exchanges" that will better coordinate investments, resources and planning in support of local programs which empower students to explore their academic and career interests within the target industries. The Illinois Pathways Initiative is supported by partnerships among the Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Student Assistance Commission and Illinois Department of Employment Security.

The Illinois Pathways Initiative is an important opportunity to commit to encouraging more women and girls to enter STEM careers and for supporting their academic and career success at the state level, but women can only avail themselves of the opportunity if the goal of gender parity is explicit and strategies to recruit and support women and girls specifically are deployed.

Gender Bias in STEM

Gender bias has long been present in STEM fields, and men continue to outnumber women especially at the upper levels of STEM professions. Women have been losing ground in receiving sub-baccalaureate awards in STEM fields, despite decades of progress to reverse this bias. Women now receive only one in four sub-baccalaureate awards in STEM fields, down from one in three in 1997. Often unconsciously, gender bias reinforces the idea that men "naturally" excel in disciplines using spatial and quantitative skills and that women conversely "naturally" excel in fields utilizing language skills. As a result, women are discouraged, whether explicitly or implicitly, from entering STEM careers and are most often concentrated in sex-segregated occupations such as health aides, childcare workers and administrative assistants. These traditionally "feminine" jobs typically pay very little and offer few benefits and advancement opportunities.

Among first-year university students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor's degrees. But research shows that girls are just as good in mathematics as boys when they are not laboring under the weight of the tired gendered stereotype which assumes biological differences in ability and interest and which views women in "masculine" positions negatively.

Benefits of STEM Careers for Women

Along with correcting gender imbalances in STEM fields, more women earning STEM credentials and higher education is one of the best ways to move women and families out of poverty. STEM careers enable women to earn higher wages and gain upward mobility. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that, overall, women with STEM jobs earned one-third more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs. In 2009 women's median annual earnings in selected STEM occupations ranged from $71,944 for electrical and electronics engineers to $41,091 for engineering technicians; this is considerably higher than the median annual earnings of $35,633 for women workers overall. What's more, the gender wage gap between women's and men's pay was smaller in STEM jobs (14 percent) than in non-STEM jobs (21 percent).

Women and Girls in STEM for the Future

Bringing more women into STEM careers is essential to the future of technological innovation and economic competitiveness. The Obama administration underscores the importance of STEM education to the health of the nation by prioritizing the extension of STEM education and career opportunities to underrepresented groups such as women and minorities. Illinois must ensure that women and girls are prepared to meet the future demand for technical skills by following this lead.

Gender parity would allow for talented individuals, no matter what their gender, to enter promising careers in technical fields and would create a more diverse workforce -- the more diverse a team, the more successful a project. Reaching out to women adept in technology is crucial to a company's attracting and retaining the human capital it needs to succeed, especially as STEM jobs are on the rise. Growth in STEM jobs over the last decade has been three times that of non-STEM jobs (7.9 percent versus 2.6 percent, respectively). Projections show strong growth over the next decade as well: the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that between 2008 and 2018 STEM occupations will grow by 17 percent, while non-STEM occupations will grow by 9.8 percent. Furthermore, in this prospective growth many STEM jobs, such as environmental engineering technicians, biological technicians and computer support specialists, require less than a baccalaureate degree, and those occupations requiring only an associate's degree or a certificate will have strong growth rates: 30 percent for environmental engineering technicians and 18 percent for biological technicians.

Promising Practices

Targeting both high school students and women already enrolled in higher education is key to advancing women and girls in STEM career pathways. Research shows that despite the stereotype that high school girls are not interested in STEM because it is "masculine," interest among girls is indeed present and just needs to be primed early on. In addition, because low-income women enrolled in higher education are concentrated in community colleges due to the array of technical education and training courses, affordability and suitability for student parents, supporting their success at the community college level is important to enabling them to enter STEM careers and obtain economic security. These are some promising practices to advance girls and women in STEM education at the high school or community college level:

•Actively recruiting women and student parents through multiple strategies -- such as personalized outreach and peer mentoring, interaction with women faculty and scientists and readily available information that emphasizes the economic benefits of STEM fields.

•Providing adequate financial supports, including financial incentives, competitions and scholarships and connecting students to federal and state sources of aid.

•Fostering positive educational environments in which girls and women are exposed to STEM careers, view them as appropriate and obtainable and which instill confidence and high perceptions of their abilities.

•Ensuring accessible and affordable or subsidized child care services for student parents.

•Improving and expanding developmental and remedial education and its alignment with certificate-granting and degree-granting programs to create seamless pathways in STEM fields.

•Offering strong counseling, advising and academic supports for students early on and throughout programs of study -- for example, implementing early warning systems for underperforming students and ensuring that students enroll in the necessary sequence of courses for completion.

•Creating educational pathways that allow for stackable credits so that women with work or family responsibilities or both can leave and return to school when necessary and still see a program through to completion.

•Conducting research on women and STEM education to understand better the factors associated with women's progress in STEM fields and promising programmatic approaches, such as research focused on different groups of women from different classes, ages, racial-ethnic backgrounds and parental status.