STEM Skills Gaps Aren't Limited to Women and Girls

“I have watched many very capable girls and women steer clear of the sciences because of the active discouragement of authority figures who dispensed very bad advice. In some cases, the girls (as students in primary and secondary school) were probably way smarter than the people who told them they were not cut out for math and science.  This kind of thing burns me up.  Besides handing boys and girls the same kinds of gadgets to take apart and put back together in Grandpa’s Labs, and introducing them to Scratch (or other coding camp tech) from an early age, what can we do to level the playing field for my granddaughter?”

I received this note from an old friend – who is about to become the grandfather of a girl.  He’s a mathematician, working in industry.  And he’s wondering what it will take to ensure that his granddaughter will have an open playing field when the time comes for her to choose a career – especially if that career interest is in the realm of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).  He asked me because I have this platform (the Workforce Institute) and because I’ve had a long career in technology.

He’s right that there are still challenges for working women.  They are more likely to be the primary caretakers of children and aging parents.  They are likely to be paid less than their male peers.  And they still face biases in the workplace based on their gender.  Reporting from the frontlines of the workplace, though, I’d encourage him to ask a different question.  Because the data suggests that both men and women are abandoning STEM careers at pretty high rates during their college years.

According to statistics from the US Department of Education, from 1999–2000 to 2009–10 the percentage of degrees earned by females remained between approximately 60 and 62 percent for associate’s degrees and between 57 and 58 percent for bachelor’s degrees; i.e. women outpaced their male peers when it came to pursuing post-secondary degrees.  Another more recent report from the US Department of Education indicates that about 28 percent of 2003−04 students beginning a bachelor’s degree  chose a STEM major at some point during their enrollment between 2003 and 2009.

Among bachelor’s degree students entering STEM fields between 2003 and 2009, nearly one-half (48 percent) had left these fields by spring 2009.  Proportionally more females than males left STEM fields by switching to a non-STEM major (32 percent vs. 26 percent), whereas proportionally more males than females left STEM fields by dropping out of college (24 percent vs. 14 percent). This same report notes, however, that the attrition rates for STEM fields of study are not higher than those for non-STEM.  Anyone who has been to college or sent children to college knows that this is a time for exploring options.  People change their majors as they learn more about their interests and future opportunities in those fields of interest.

While the data does reveal that women are more likely to abandon STEM than men, it’s also worth asking why 48% of all STEM students abandon those degrees for alternatives like business and healthcare.   Are other options more interesting, more lucrative?  Or is it that students need help envisioning how those STEM skills will help them in all kinds of cross-disciplinary ways?   A recent NPR story noted, “In the United States, more than 40,000 temporary employees known as postdoctoral research fellows are doing science at a bargain price. And most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don’t actually exist.”  That explains why students might steer clear of the path to PhD, but there are lots of jobs in the US that go unfilled due to organizations’ inability to find candidates with STEM skills.

What to do?  On the personal front, my friend should encourage his grandchildren to explore STEM by helping them take active interest in how the world around them works.  If they become interested in STEM careers, he should remind them that although these topics can be hard to master, they set you up for success in all manner of jobs after school years have ended.  He can tell them that math isn’t only for mathematicians, but also for a whole range of professionals ranging from the manufacturing shop floor to the highest reaches of business.  And science isn’t strictly the realm of scientists, but is about questioning the world around us in order to understand ourselves and our place in the universe.

As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but ‘That’s funny…”



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2 thoughts on “STEM Skills Gaps Aren't Limited to Women and Girls

  1. Thank you for addressing this important topic, and for pointing out some of the dynamics involved in creating the STEM skills gap for both sexes. I had not considered the impact of college dropout rates as a kind of equalizer that could erase some of sex-based differences in number of students who decide to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

    It could be that the radical reductions in educational opportunity grants that began in the Reagan Administration, and that continue to this day, have created a situation that favors other fields of study over the “hard sciences” and math. Student loans have become the primary educational financing mechanism at the post secondary level. When students are competing for the limited merit-based scholarship funds, they have an incentive to play to their strengths in order to keep their grade point averages high.

    STEM fields have a reputation for difficult introductory courses with intense competition for grades. Whether or not this is true, I can see why it could seem like a risky move to give STEM a try unless it looks like a sure winner in the good grades steeplechase.

    If I were a researcher, I would love to find funding for a longitudinal study to determine whether boys are more likely to run aground in their attempts to finance their education by taking on the STEM Challenge (and losing their funding to someone else who played it safe in another field). Another study that I would want to see is whether boys/men are more likely to select perceived shortcuts such as for-profit “universities”, which have extremely high dropout rates.

    I think we would have more young people pursuing STEM career paths if we chose as a society to give the most significant form of encouragement– funding.

  2. I agree with your analysis, Charles. I think another missing driver is that we don’t have a galvanizing cause that interests young people in science. In the 60’s, it was the space program. Now, it probably should be climate change. In any case, I think that space exploration excited a lot of young people about science because the end game was a bigger cause than just a job.

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