While I still can’t fully grasp the inequalities I will face in my career in STEM, I’ve acknowledged the mindset and identity I will have to craft in the face of the barriers to come. Instead of being able to read about these events in my history books, I am still part of generations of working women striving for workplace equality. Though I can take my voting rights or my higher education for granted thanks to (the decades of protest resulting in the ratification of) the 19th Amendment and women’s college education finally opening up in the 19th century, my working age will be dominated by the movements and struggles to create an equal world for women in STEM. Yet, despite the discrimination and lesser prospects I anticipate during my lifetime, I’m hopeful for better futures for women in later generations entering the STEM field.
Progress toward decreasing the gender gap has stagnated over the past few decades. But it’s hard to understand why this stagnation remains — particularly when statistics, surveys and studies continue to show that gender diversity increases innovation, pushes economic growth and leads to a more inclusive society overall. Since beginning this mini-series on the gender disparity in STEM, I received an email from Nita Singh Kaushal ’03, founder and CEO of Miss CEO and lecturer at Stanford School of Engineering. When she read earlier articles from the series, she told me that the experiences I described made her feel like “she was reading her own personal journey as an [electrical engineering] grad navigating the tech industry” and that the content would be “not out of place if the articles had been published in the 1960s.”
Women earn only 83% of equivalent male full-time workers’ salaries — meaning that women need to work an extra 44 days to achieve the same yearly salary as men. But closing the gender gap doesn’t benefit women only. Increasing the number of women employed in STEM fields could accelerate U.S. GDP growth by boosting women’s cumulative earnings by $299 billion and adding roughly $5.87 trillion to the global stock market within 10 years. This economic growth, however, isn’t due to increased labor force participation alone. Women tend to invest a larger proportion of their household income toward their children’s education than men; they’re also 14% more likely to participate in job-related savings plans.
Reducing the gender gap in STEM also leads to more innovation. Studies have suggested that diversity drives innovation, as diverse teams include different voices, viewpoints, expertise and life experiences and can therefore be more effective at problem-solving. A study by the Boston Consulting Group showed that companies with above-average diversity yielded higher earnings and that the presence of fair employment practices, participative leadership and open communications can generate up to 19 percentage points more in innovation revenue compared to companies which reported below-average diversity in their leadership. Poor representation within companies leads to gender-biased designs, products and services. Some cases examined by the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (UN CSTD) included seat belts which didn’t factor in the smaller size of women and medications being tested on men only. Even the female personas of smart assistants like Alexa and Siri have led to “children barking commands at them without common courtesy, potentially shifting behavior towards real women,” as noted in a similar UN CSTD report.
Women’s freedoms within are limited by this gender disparity, but some organizations are beginning to make changes. A previous job posting by Nordstrom included the following note:
Some other examples include Google’s “Tech Bytes” series, which highlights Black women engineers, and “Women Techmakers,” a program which brings together over 70,000 women each year. Airbnb also reported 27.5% women in tech internally in 2019.
Progress has also been made globally. In the European Union — where 41% of scientists and engineers are women — women outnumber men in these professions in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal and Denmark. STEM researchers are majority female in many South American countries, including the Argentina, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Venezuela. In Asian countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kuwait, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Thailand, women make up the majority of their researchers. For these nations, active encouragement for female participation in science, opportunities for employment in government-funded facilities and focused welfare and social policies are among some of the factors which have increased their numbers of women in the workplace.
Despite women making up only 29% of the national STEM workforce, and despite women making up 3% of STEM industry CEOs, I’m still hopeful we can achieve equality for women in STEM. A future designed equally by women ultimately results in radical changes in how we build products, create services, communicate, produce food, provide health care, work and educate the world for future generations. As the current working generation, we can be active in the different roles we all hold and continue to show up for younger girls through representation, policy-making, outreach and hiring. By facing the STEM gender disparity head on, we can really create a gender-equal future in STEM, ultimately giving women the freedoms, comfort and access to society that many of our male counterparts already enjoy.