While the world is seeing increasing gender inclusion across many professions, the field of STEM has traditionally lagged in terms of female representation. As this year’s International Day for Women and Girls in Science approaches, we consider this lack of representation in STEM, factors influencing this, and why it is important to increase female participation in this field of the future.  

What is STEM?  

STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a broad field that includes occupations such as life sciences, engineering, architecture and computer sciences. This field is widely hailed as the ‘jobs of the future’, showing the fastest growth and highest pay across all industries.

Despite the field’s high regard, women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce. Men vastly outnumber women in studying STEM fields in higher education, despite women earning more undergraduate degrees, on average, than men.   

Research from the Pew Institute showed that a typical STEM worker earns two-thirds more than those employed in other fields; and some of the highest-earning fields in STEM, such as computer science and engineering, are those with the lowest proportion of women. This kind of occupational segregation contributes to the wider gender wage gap seen across the job market. 

Why are women so under-represented in this field?

The most common barrier to women entering STEM fields seems to be attitudes and expectations that portray STEM as a masculine field, particularly during secondary schooling.

Research shows that girls hold themselves to a higher standard in subjects such as math, believing that they need to be exceptional to succeed in male-dominated fields. Studies have also shown that while men and women participate equally in math and science classes in secondary school, this does not translate into tertiary education, and even less so when entering the professional field. 

Another barrier to women joining the STEM fields are the systemic challenges faced such as discrimination, gender pay gaps, lack of job security, and sexual harassment to name a few.

Women breaking stereotypes and leading the way in STEM

Nancy Grace Roman, the American Astronomer and ‘Mother of the Hubble Telescope’, recalled being discouraged from studying mathematics and told from a young age that “women could not be scientists”. Choosing not to listen to these voices Nancy pursued her passion, eventually completing her PhD in Astronomy and working for NASA on the now famous Hubble Telescope. 

Perhaps one of the most well-known women in STEM, Marie Curie, was influential in changing the perceptions of women within the field, as well as continuing to inspire women to pursue scientific studies despite this going against supposed gender norms.  

Maureen Gwinn, who is Chief Scientist for the US’ Environmental Protection Agency amongst other roles, was first introduced to the possibility of pursuing a career in science while learning about Marie Curie in elementary school. It is her goal to be a role model for the next generation, demonstrating the variety of opportunities for women within this field, but as she said “there is still work to be done”.

Elaine Weyuker experienced the difficulties of entering the STEM field in the 1960’s, when the electrical engineering building she studied in did not have a female restroom for her to use.  Now a renowned software engineer, she is using her success to inspire other women and girls to enter the field, as well as conducting in-depth studies of the systemic barriers for women in STEM and proposing institutional and cultural changes to mitigate these. 



Changing attitudes

It is these pervasive attitudes that have limited women from entering the STEM fields; and while no longer directly discouraged from pursuing these careers, women and girls have certainly not been widely encouraged to do so. Changing such attitudes that surround Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is the first step in increasing the number of women entering these fields. 

Greater representation of women in STEM would show the value that diversity brings to the workforce, and especially in these innovative fields. As an example, the initial development of automotive airbags was led by male engineers and used adult, male bodies as the basis of their designs. The resulting products did not account for differences in age or gender, putting women and children at a much higher risk of injury or death. A more diverse workforce will lead to scientific and technological products, services and solutions that are more likely to represent all users. 

Positive Peace and representation

These changes in attitude can be supported through using the Positive Peace Framework, which provides an evidence-based background for creating sustainable change. Critiquing institutions which promote stereotypes could provide inspiration for the design of new, innovative programs promoting inclusion. Aligning these programs with the Positive Peace Framework ensures sustainability and ongoing change, in these pervasive and often subconscious attitudes limiting women from participating in STEM.  

As a recent AAUW paper surmised: “to diversify the STEM fields, we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture. Encouraging more girls and women to enter these vital fields will require careful attention to the environment in our classrooms and workplaces and throughout our culture.” 

Learn more about the Positive Peace Framework here. 


Alessa Dever is a Partnership Associate with IEP

Alessa Dever

Communications Associate at IEP

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