Our current era has been defined by the advancement of science and technology. With the incredible strides that have occurred in these fields over the past several decades, the need for data scientists, computer and engineering specialists, and other skilled STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professionals only continues to increase – in fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2024 nearly half a million STEM jobs will be added to the labor pool.
However, coupled with this exciting progression is a troubling fact: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, women account for only about 25% of those employed in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations. Similarly, only about 19% of engineering degrees awarded in 2014 were awarded to women (National Student Clearinghouse). There is an unmistakable disparity between the number of men and women in STEM fields, both in the job force and in educational settings – and this disparity has continued over a period of decades with no significant change.
This issue seems incongruous with a culture where female students make up the majority of all higher education learners. So why exactly are women in the minority when it comes to STEM?
Since numerous neuroscientists and experts have repudiated the idea that women are innately or biologically less capable of excelling in scientific and mathematical fields, we must conclude that the cause of this issue is sociological in nature.
One source of the disparity is that women have historically been perceived to be less capable in STEM capacities. This negative perception has had an actual impact on women’s performance in these areas.
A study executed by the American Association of University Women revealed that when young women are not exposed to negative stereotypes, they consistently score significantly higher on math and science exams than young women who are exposed to such influences. This tells us that stereotypes and preconceptions do play a heavy role in whether and how far women excel in STEM fields.
But there are more sociological issues in play. Looking specifically at technology, in the 1980s when video games and computers first entered the market, they were typically marketed to boys. This created a culture surrounding computers, gaming, and coding that is generally male, even today.
Thus, it would appear that the main cause behind women’s lag in STEM areas is entirely the result of sweeping inaccuracies: not only do women perceive themselves to be less capable, but they also have a perception of these fields as being primarily male-oriented. These factors have created dynamics that perpetuate this gender gap – and the only way to change the situation is to reinvent people’s perceptions.
We can see that some reshaping is in order – both of women’s self-perceptions and of the perceptions associated with STEM fields themselves. And, as in any ideological battle, the best way to fight negative messages is through positive ones.
For the schools’ part, these positive messages will come in two ways: through the actions and culture of the school itself, and through actual marketing.
First, the school that wants to be an instrument of empowerment needs to incorporate women in STEM fields.
It should be evident in looking at the faculty and leadership that women are a critical and valued part of the school’s STEM programs.
Additionally, schools should take an active role in promoting the successful women that shape these fields. Elevate female contributors to STEM fields by hosting them as guest speakers, inviting them to give master's classes, or sharing their work.
But beyond promoting successful women in STEM, efforts need to be made to provide more opportunities to women who wish to make their own contributions in these fields. For example, offering more scholarships for female STEM students, flexible program options for women who have families or are otherwise “nontraditional,” and data-driven retention programs to keep these students on track to graduate. Using these strategies, schools can both secure and retain a whole swath of female learners.
These changes will create an overall atmosphere and trajectory that is favorable to women pursuing STEM degrees, but when it comes to exhibiting these traits in your marketing, it is up to you to ensure that you’re sending clear messages.
Your marketing needs to convey, both visually and verbally, the kind of female inclusion for which you strive. It should tell potential students that STEM fields are wide open to women, and that women will excel in these courses. And, to dispel the myths about STEM fields being boring or stereotypically “nerdy,” your marketing should also tell of the potential that is available through a STEM degree and the unique opportunities it can offer.
Through careful and consistent messaging, your institution can take an active role in turning around the negative perceptions that so often plague women in these industries.
Rebalancing the Scales
The gender gap in STEM fields is not as pronounced an issue in some countries. In India, the percentage of women in STEM classrooms is often closer to 50%, according to the All India Survey on Higher Education.
This tells us that the inequality can be rectified. Since schools are the gateway to industries, some of the responsibility now falls upon institutions to make the changes necessary to bring balance to the STEM culture. With a mind to denounce and reshape misconceptions, schools can produce even more successful STEM graduates than ever before, while bringing equality to a whole portion of an industry that for so long has been the proverbial “boys club.”