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Data shows women making gains in STEM workforce but still underrepresented

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Posted at 1:43 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 15:29:13-05

In recent years, an increasing number of women have entered the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, otherwise known as STEM.

While the percentage of women in the STEM workforce continues to make gains, we still have a long way to go for full representation.

Despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, women are still vastly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

What are the numbers?

In 2019, there were nearly 10.8 million workers in STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1970, women made up 38% of all U.S. workers but only 8% of STEM workers, according to the Census data. By 2019, women made up 48% of all workers and the STEM proportion had increased to 27%.

In comparison, men made up 52% of all U.S. workers but 73% of all STEM workers.

"Since 1970, the representation of women has increased across all STEM occupations," the Census Bureau reports.

In particular, women made significant gains in social science occupations – from 19% in 1970 to 64% in 2019.

Women in 2019 also made up nearly half of those in all math (47%) and life and physical science (45%) occupations.

However, women did not make as big gains in computer and engineering occupations, which made up the largest portion (80%) of the STEM workforce.

Women in STEM jobs

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, women represented only about a quarter of computer workers and 15% of those in engineering occupations.

"They were, however, a majority of the nation’s social scientists. But social science accounted for only 3% of STEM occupations," the Census Bureau said.

Women working in engineering occupations increased from 3% in 1970 to 15% in 2019.

"And while the percentage of women in computer occupations is higher than in 1970, it actually decreased between 1990 and 2019," the U.S. Census Bureau said.

The share of STEM degrees for women of color in the United States is smaller, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit.

In 2017–2018, women of color earned a small percentage (14.1%) of bachelor’s degrees across all STEM fields, Catalyst's calculation based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed. This includes:

  • Asian women: 5.3%
  • Black women: 2.9%
  • Latinas: 4.3%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native women: 0.1%

Catalyst's data show the amount of science and engineering employees in the United States who were women of color (11.5%) in 2017 included:

  • Asian women: 6.0%
  • Black women: 2.5%
  • Latinas: 2.3%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native women: 0.1%

What about pay?

According to U.S. Census Bureau, women employed full-time, year-round in STEM occupations earned more than their non-STEM counterparts but the gender earnings gap persisted within STEM occupations.

Among the 70 detailed STEM occupations the Census Bureau reports on, women earned more than men in only one STEM occupation: computer network architects. But women represented only 8% of those in this occupation.

Why is there a gender gap?

According to Catalyst, a global nonprofit working with leading companies to build workplaces that work for women, this gap begins in education, "fueled by gender stereotypes and expectations regarding 'women’s work.'"

"Despite similar achievement scores among children of all genders in math and science, men are the overwhelming majority of students studying STEM fields in higher education," Catalyst research shows.

The few women who begin careers in STEM face male-dominated workplaces with high rates of discrimination including their contributions often being ignored, isolation caused by lack of access to women peers, role models, and mentors, and they are paid less than their male co-workers.

Women also leave STEM careers at disproportionately higher rates than men, particularly among those who are working parents, according to Catalyst.

Click here for a breakdown of Catalyst's research, globally and in the United States.

How to increase representation?

From newsletters to textbooks, it's important to highlight and talk about the achievements and contributions of woman to the STEM field.

Researchers say teachers can add images of female mathematicians or scientists throughout classroom materials and assign work that shines a light on women’s achievements in these subjects in order to shift perceptions about who belongs in the field.

There is also a need for more mentorship in the STEM field. As research shows women in STEM often feel isolated, organizations can strive to provide mentoring opportunities for female STEM employees to connect with other successful women in their industry.

Recognizing and empowering women is crucial in encouraging girls to enter the STEM field.