Recent Studies Highlight Gender Gaps in STEM, Leadership – Experts Discuss How to Overcome Them

Posted By Terri Williams on October 20, 2015 at 11:38 am
Recent Studies Highlight Gender Gaps in STEM, Leadership – Experts Discuss How to Overcome Them

A recent study by Georgetown University reveals that some college majors are dominated by females, while others are predominately male. The majors that are overwhelmingly female – various education specialties, as well as medical assisting – lead to many of the lowest-paid professions for graduates with a college degree.

On the other hand, the majors that are overwhelmingly male – primarily in engineering and computer science – lead to higher-paying jobs.  Other recent studies show that many other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors lead to some of the country’s highest paying jobs.

According to the Center for American Progress:

  • Women earn 60% of all undergraduate degrees, 60% of all master’s degrees, 47% of all law degrees, and 48% of all medical degrees

However, females are sorely underrepresented in leadership positions:

  • Women represent 45% of the Standard & Poor labor force and 37% of first and mid-level managers, but they are only 25% of executive- and senior-level executives, hold only 19% of board seats, and are only 4.6%% of CEOs
  • Women represent 45% of the legal field, but only 20% of partners and 17% of equity partners
  • Women represent  35.5% of all physicians and surgeons, but only 16% of permanent medical school deans
  • Women make up only 30% of full professors and 26% of college deans
  • At 9 major Silicon Valley companies, female employment levels range from 10% at Twitter to 27% at Intuit
  • 47% of the 150 highest-earning public Silicon Valley companies have no female executive officers

GoodCall asked several experts to explain some of the causes of these STEM and leadership gender gaps, and offer possible solutions.


“I’m convinced the largest contributor to this trend is conditioning of our children from a very young age,” says Adrienne R. Minerick, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research & Innovation at the College of Engineering and a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Girls tend to be given dolls or stuffed animals and get praise for how they play with those items.  Boys tend to be discouraged from those items and given trucks, Legos, et cetera. Every form of media children see as they grow up has gendered examples of roles that fit along these norms.”

Minerick explains, “The behaviors that parents reward, tolerate, and reinforce follow similar gendered patterns to what they were taught. Girls are often corrected and told to be agreeable, while boys receive less correction on being considerate or caring for others.” She says that elementary school teachers do this as well in our classrooms, where girls who are assertive – or “bossy” – tend to get reprimanded for that behavior.

Changing barriers

“Once female students become interested in STEM careers, we also have the challenge of helping them stay in the STEM pipeline,” says Dr. Callie Babbitt, Assistant Professor of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the 
Rochester Institute of Technology.

Babitt says they face barriers that change over time. “In elementary and high school, it may be a lack of emphasis on the acceptability of trying and failing new things or grappling with difficult concepts to completion; in college, it may be the lack of social support networks or financial pressures.”

According to Erin L. Albert, MBA, PharmD, JD, 
an associate professor of pharmacy practice and director of continuing education at Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Indianapolis, more women than men pursue degrees in pharmacy.

“However, while the field is dominated by women graduates, I still see a majority of men only in pharmacy leadership positions. This is a problem, because we need diversity in leadership positions in order to make the profession stronger and representative of the actual population of pharmacy professionals,” says Albert.

So – how can we close the dual gender gaps in both STEM and leadership?

Change the message

Minerick recommends taking the traditional message that female receive – care for others, care for society – and show how STEM can fit into this model. “Simply put, a female can go into medical assisting services and help one patient at a time, or a female can go into my field of chemical and biomedical engineering to design and build a medical device that will improve the quality of life for millions of people.”

Minerick continues, “Do you want to help prevent the spread of disease?  Become a civil or environmental engineer.  Do you want to address proper nutrition on a global scale?  Explore agricultural engineering. Do you want to help solve energy issues?  Become a chemical or mechanical engineer.” She says as the message gets out on how rewarding and impactful STEM careers are, more women will gravitate toward them.

Change the image of STEM professionals and leaders

Minerick says science and engineering are portrayed in the media as dominated by isolated, brilliant, but odd individuals, and she says this couldn’t be further from the truth.  “The problems we are challenged with are so large that we work in teams – of brilliant individuals – to create options, test them, and arrive at optimal solutions. Those females who pursue careers in STEM-related fields often find how fun it is to be influencing solutions on a large scale,” says Minerick. She adds, “Those teams without females and other forms of diversity yield solutions with more oversights and flaws.  Even if males currently dominate these fields, women can join, lead, and make the outcomes better.”

Babbitt agrees that female students may not realize that an engineering career can provide such a dynamic and collaborative environment. “Students often have an idea of the lone, pocket-protector-wearing engineer working in isolation, and they may not realize how diverse the field is becoming or how much the job relies on skills like communication, teamwork, problem-solving, leadership, and creativity – all of which are also associated with jobs where females do have higher representation,” she says.

Make learning fun

“Game-based approaches to STEM make learning fun and engaging,” says Sidharth Oberoi, President and Chief Academic Officer of Zaniac, which offers after-school and summer camp programs where K-8 students can learn STEM using robotics.

Oberoi, who feels that girls – and boys – should be exposed to STEM principles at a young age and throughout the education process, also thinks it is important to introduce them to nontraditional STEM jobs in such areas as forensics, fashion design, plumbing, and animation.

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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