Reports: Girls Still Aren’t Embracing STEM Careers

Posted By Terri Williams on June 27, 2017 at 12:03 pm
Reports: Girls Still Aren’t Embracing STEM Careers

Two new reports reveal that teen girls and boys have definite career ideas, and many teen girls aren’t embracing STEM careers. The first report, by Junior Achievement and Ernst & Young LLP, surveyed 1,000 students between the ages of 13 – 17.

Some findings:

  • 91% of boys and girls know what type of job they want.
  • 36% of boys plan to pursue STEM careers.
  • 11% of girls plan to pursue STEM careers.
  • Most girls (26%) plan to work in the arts, or the medical/dental field (24%).

When asked to describe their dream job, the responses are as follows:

  • Boys: I think it would be fun (28%), I’d be good at it (21%), I’d make a lot of money (17%).
  • Girls: I would help people (25%), I’d be good at it (23%), I think it would be fun (20%).

The second report, by Boy Scouts of America, also gauges interest in future careers. According to this report of 150,000 boys and girls in the 6th through 12th grades, 45% of respondents plan to pursue a STEM career. However:

  • 18% of boys versus 3% of girls chose engineering
  • 14% of boys versus 40% of girls were interested in a health career
  • 14% of boys versus 7% of girls chose a business career
  • Girls were 86% less likely than boys to choose a computing career

These were the 10 most popular careers among the survey respondents:

1 Registered nurse
2 Professional athlete
3 Artist
4 Musician/singer
5 Athletic trainer/sports medicine
6 Physician/surgeon
7 Actor/Actress
8 Veterinarian/veterinary tech
9 Photographer
10 Mechanical engineer


The results for both girls and boys are a mixed bag. The U.S. will need 1.2 million nurses by 2030, so it’s a relief to see that this is the top career among girls. The job outlook for veterinarians and veterinary technicians is also good – but techs, who typically need an associate degree, early roughly $32,490 annually, which is below the median for American workers. Mechanical engineering is the lone non-healthcare STEM entry – but it barely made the top 10, and it’s popular among boys, not girls.

Reasons behind some career choices

Some choices appear to be based on popular culture. In a recent report revealing that U.S. students fail to impress in math and science, 64.1% of foreign exchange students thought U.S. students valued sports success more than they valued academic achievement. When college coaches earn more than college presidents and some schools divert as much as $20 million annually in college fees to athletic programs, teens may be following that example. Dreams of being rich and famous as athletes and performers are not uncommon, even though tech is a better bet for those who want to become millionaires.

However, for girls, the stakes are much higher. If they make the wrong career choice, the financial consequences could be devastating. Women, on average earn less than men because they tend to choose majors leading to careers that pay less. Even among those who choose to attend med school, the gender wage gap persists among physicians – and also dentists and lawyers.

Also, women have more student loan debt and it takes them longer to pay it off. While the girls in the Junior Achievement survey did not list money as one of the top three factors when choosing a dream career, too often, they’re in for a rude awakening once those bills start rolling in. That’s why it’s concerning that girls aren’t embracing STEM careers.

The demand for grads in such stem disciplines as technology, mathematics, and engineering continues to grow, and the wages are much higher than the national average for other U.S. jobs. For example, an entry level data scientist with less than three years of experience earns a median base salary of $95,000, with a typical $10,000 bonus. A level 2 data scientist earns a median base salary of $126,000, with a typical $15,000 bonus, and a level 3 data scientist earns $157,000, with a typical $29,250 bonus.

For data scientists who are managers, salaries can range from $148,000 to $250,000, and include bonuses that exceed the annual income of the average U.S. worker.

Also, data science degrees are relatively new, so most data scientists major in mathematics (27%), engineering (19%), or computer science (19%). But grads with these degrees can also work in other high-paying, in-demand fields.

Opinions on embracing STEM careers

Joseph C. Burke, executive vice president of development at Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas, tells GoodCall® that students aspire to what they see and know. “It’s critical that we provide girls the opportunity to not only learn about the tremendous career opportunities in STEM, but also meet and interact with women who currently work in these fields.”

Junior Achievement has over 12,000 volunteers who mentor, inspire and guide students through career exploration. “We have to reach girls, starting early and consistently throughout the education process, to ensure they realize their potential,” Burke explains.  A recent Junior Achievement alumni study reveals that 33% of students were influenced by their volunteer, and 20% now work in the same field as their volunteer. “So, the impact of expanding the horizons for women students is powerful.”

Lauren D. Thomas, who has a Ph.D. in engineering education and works in the tech and higher education industries, tells GoodCall®, “There’s quite a bit of research on girls in STEM, both in secondary and post-secondary education, but pinpointing the reasons why the share of women in STEM declines through each stage of education can be difficult.

However, Thomas believes that three specific keys can make a difference in girls embracing STEM careers: (1) STEM role modeling, (2) exposure to the impact of STEM careers, and (3) improving the STEM work climate for women.

“STEM role modeling includes not just putting women in STEM fields in front of teens but also ensuring that all STEM role models demonstrate inclusivity,” Thomas says. “Subtle sexism in science and math classrooms and outreach activities have an impact, both on girls who are excelling and how boys understand STEM work.”

Thomas points to the important responsibility that role models have in fighting these negative stereotypes and sexist behaviors, and also in acknowledging the historical and current contributions of women in STEM.

“Exposing young people to the impact of STEM careers also matters, and highlighting how STEM innovations and products help people and improve their lives is important.” Remember that “helping people” was the top criterion for girls choosing their dream career.

“There are some areas of STEM that do a better job of showing how their work helps people, and those disciplines tend to have a larger share of women in them, such as biomedical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, etcetera,” Thomas explains.  “But if the path to helping others is usually not a central feature of explanations of and exposure to certain disciplines, it’s not a surprise that girls are less interested.”

“Improving the post-secondary and professional work climate for women studying and working in STEM fields will also have an effect,” Thomas says. “Students see the articles about women facing harassment or struggling to get ahead in technical fields just like adults do.” While companies are spending millions to bring diversity to their organizations, unfairness and mistreatment are cited as the top reasons for tech turnover among women and minority workers.

“Some students who have women in STEM role models see and hear about the grating work and educational experiences that these individuals work through, and, frankly, why would someone sign up for that kind of experience?” Thomas asks. Addressing the factors that stop and keep women out of STEM are critical to creating a diverse pipeline. And since these are areas that personally affect Thomas, she says she is hesitant to send other young women into the lion’s den.

“STEM culture has to change to become less sexist, racist, militaristic, ableist, xenophobic and so many other things in order for representation to change and shift,” Thomas explains. “There is a huge opportunity to influence how young people shape their perception of STEM fields by making sure that learning and working spaces do not diminish young women’s interest and talent.”

In addition, Thomas says, we can’t just “paint STEM pink” and believe that this will magically change perceptions. “STEM careers that young women might be interested in aren’t just about making makeup and hair products, or emphasizing design elements and leaving the hard coding work to the boys.” While this may appeal to some girls, others might be attracted to other types of activities.

For example, BYU’s Collegiate Cyber Defense Team is 50% women. Also, RIT’s all-female team built an electric car that took first place at the collegiate Formula Hybrid Competition sponsored by GM, Ford, Toyota, and other car manufacturers. Carnegie Mellon University’s Girls of Steel Robotics Team is another successful approach to attracting and engaging young women. “When biases and antiquated gender roles of women’s work are reinforced, it invites a narrow perception of the type of STEM careers that women can have, “Thomas concludes.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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