STEM Opportunities for Women and Minorities

scientist photoIn recent years, STEM has become a buzzword in educational and professional circles, though it is actually an acronym: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. As these fields begin to grow and more qualified professionals are needed to lead innovation, it has become increasingly clear that recruiting more women and minorities is essential for continued growth and creativity. Historically, these populations have accounted for a small fraction of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, which are often regarded as male-dominated industries.

In addition to the need for more qualified workers, STEM careers provide exciting opportunities for breaking the norm and offering upward mobility and economic security to women and minorities; groups disproportionately affected by poverty. The following guide provides an insider’s look at STEM industries, explores why women and minorities have traditionally been underrepresented in these fields and what is being done to change the status quo.

As advances within STEM fields continue to reshape and inform the daily lives of millions of people, jobs in the industry are expanding at a rapid rate. According to the U.S. Department of Education, by 2020 jobs in this field will have grown by unprecedented numbers in the previous decade. Some of the quickest growing occupations include:

  • Mathematicians: 16%
  • Computer System Analysts: 22%
  • Systems Software Developers: 32%
  • Medical Scientists: 36%
  • Biomedical Engineers: 62%

The outlook for STEM careers is exceedingly promising. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both the number and breadth of positions are set to expand over the next decade. Using the organization’s Career Outlook report for STEM, we’ve highlighted some information about popular jobs:

  • Sports Statistical Analyst
    • Projected Growth*, 2012-2022: 27%
    • Median Annual Wage, 2014: $79,990
  • Nursing Instructor
    • Projected Growth, 2012-2022: 35%
    • Median Annual Wage, 2013: $65,940
  • Computer Systems Analyst
    • Projected Growth, 2012-2022: 25%
    • Median Annual Wage, 2014: $82,710
  • Mathematician
    • Projected Growth, 2012-2022: 23%
    • Median Annual Wage, 2014: $103,720
  • Environmental Engineer
    • Projected Growth, 2012-2022: 15%
    • Median Annual Wage, 2014: $83,360

*Projected growth refers to the percentage increase expected in the total number of available jobs between 2012 and 2022.

While these five jobs provide a small sample, STEM industries are overflowing with secure, well-paying jobs where professionals can quickly move up in their fields through dedication and hard work.

Male professionals heavily populate the current workforce, although the industry is slowly shifting. A 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau found that, although women make up nearly half of the American workforce, they constitute only 26% of STEM workers. Similarly, African Americans account for 6% and Hispanics for 7% of professionals currently employed in a STEM-related career.

Sadly, these numbers represent a larger problem: minority and female students aren’t studying these topics at the collegiate level. A report by The National Center for Education Statistics found that even if these students do choose a STEM major, they have a much higher rate of changing their majors to unrelated topics as they progress in their educations. Another problem is the specific science topics women choose to study. While female college students account for over half of all degrees awarded in biological sciences, their participation in other areas is shockingly low. The National Science Foundation reported the following statistics on the matter:

Female Participation in STEM Studies at the Collegiate Level

  • Computer Science: 18.2%
  • Engineering: 19.2%
  • Physics: 19.1%

Minority Participation in STEM Studies at the Collegiate Level

  • Engineering: 3.1%
  • Physical Sciences: 6.5%
  • Mathematics: 5.4%
  • Computer Science: 4.8%

The lack of equal representation of women and minorities within STEM fields have nuances within each demographic, but the largest shared reason relates to education.

A 2011 study conducted by the Economics & Statistics Association suggests that perhaps the challenge in creating greater minority inclusion lies in ensuring that more African Americans and Hispanic students have access to educational support that will help them finish high school and their bachelor’s degree. The report found that, regardless of race, workers who hold at least a baccalaureate degree are much more likely to enter the STEM field. Because minorities have significantly higher dropout rates in high school, creating mechanisms to support them through these years and into higher education will help balance the inequalities.

While women outpace men in their attainment of bachelor’s diplomas – the latest statistics show women account for 57.3% of all undergraduate degrees – they face other challenges rooted in both education and industry norms. With the rise of the personal computer and the idea that technological industries were more of a man’s world, the number of women participating in STEM studies and careers dropped significantly; only in the last decade have these numbers begun to rise, though not to their former amounts.

STEM industries have been painted as competitive environments, with little room for creativity or the opportunity to give back to the community. As the field works to reverse this view and show that a career in this arena doesn’t translate to sitting in a cubicle programming, more female students are becoming interested in undertaking STEM-related studies.

On a personal level, pursuing a STEM career equates to upward mobility and greater job opportunities. According to the Education Supports Racial and Ethnic Equality in STEM report by Economics and Statistics Administration, professionals in STEM careers earn significantly more than non-STEM counterparts, with median wages often double the average national wage. Professionals who are Hispanic or African American also receive a much larger STEM premium than non-Hispanic white counterparts.

On a national level, the boon of STEM industries means the field is in serious need of qualified workers. Today, more than one in five STEM professionals are foreign born, with the vast majority originating from Asia. As U.S. based STEM companies continue to grow and expand, the need for American workers will skyrocket.

On an international level, STEM industries frequently work with global clients, consumers, researchers and professionals. Many of the research and products coming out of STEM labs are not only relevant to American consumers, but to the world at large. The National Institute for Demographic Studies reports that 49.6% of the globe’s population is female, meaning roughly half of the STEM workforce should be women to accurately represent their needs.

The Importance of Diverse Points of View in Research

Aside from the points listed above, the industry also needs more women and minorities to share their point of view in the research, design and creation of new ideas and products. A report by Harvard Business Review found that women control more than $20 trillion in yearly consumer spending, with their average annual incomes totaling over $13 trillion. Professionals that understand women’s buying habits and can relate to their interests and needs are in extremely high demand.

Minority buying power continues to rise rapidly; in 2014, Hispanic populations accounted for $1.3 trillion in economic contributions, an amount larger than the economies of all but 15 countries. Diversity is also key for gaining insight into key consumers. Research has shown that women approach their careers differently than male counterparts, often seeking out jobs that allow them to make a difference on a local, national or global scale. This unique approach can inform the industry and deliver research and products that otherwise may simply go missed without varied points of view.

How can we address the diversity gap?

To increase the number of minority and female professionals within STEM, initiatives must start well before college. A 2015 article in Time Magazine reported that only 20 cents of every dollar spent towards STEM education goes toward programs below the undergraduate level. However, these crucial years are pivot points for many students, as they take AP exams and move closer toward a career path. Investing in programs and initiatives to encourage women and minorities to pursue STEM studies at this stage is crucial. Some of the most successful programs emerging include:

    • After school programs. Initiatives such as the Afterschool Alliance are working to provide interesting and fun STEM learning opportunities after school, when the pressure to perform is taken away.
    • Summer camps. i2 Camp is a great example of how to turn topics in science, technology, engineering and math into hands-on learning experiences that kids enjoy.
    • Local science centers. Whether visiting the local planetarium or natural history museum, field trips and weekend visits to these types of centers can ignite interest in the field from an early age.
    • Mentorship. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory has created an innovative high school mentorship program, allowing high school students to take part in a one-on-one internship with laboratory staff, giving them hands on experience via a research project or career exploration.
    • Student clubs. The National Science Teachers’ Association has highlighted the positive effects of student clubs, noting the use of real-world experiences and activities has proven successful in getting kids who would otherwise be disinterested involved in STEM topics.
    • AP course availability. The AP STEM Access program was started in 2013 to help increase the number of minority and female high school students who undertake AP exams in STEM-related topics.

By initiating programs such as these, many more women and minority students will consider STEM degrees when it comes time to pick a major at the collegiate level. However, these innovative support measures are just as important at the college level, as reports have shown that female student are much more likely to transfer out of a STEM major than their male peers.

Once students enter college, the need for support systems and encouragement intensifies. A report by the National Center for Education Statistics followed a group of bachelor’s and associate degree students who entered college in a STEM-related major. By the end of the program, 48% of the four-year students and 69% of the two-year students had left the field: half moved to a different major, while others left college before earning a degree. The attrition rates in STEM fields are seen as a contributing factor to the shortage of female and minority students. Some of the best ways to keep students engaged and foster their interest in STEM studies include:

    1. Summer research trips and internships. These opportunities are a great option for keeping students interested in STEM topics, providing real-world learning initiatives and hands-on experience. By stepping outside the classroom, students are able to see practical and creative applications for the topics they are learning about in their degree.
    2. National Societies for Women and Minorities in STEM. As more emphasis is placed on recruiting these populations to STEM career paths, numerous professional organizations and honor societies are being formed to support students in their endeavors. Most activities revolve around advocacy, education, research and funding. These societies also offer local chapters and national conferences the chance to bring groups together to discuss topics important to women and minorities in the field. Some of the most notable groups include:
    3. Mentorships. Having a role model or mentor throughout college can be a pivotal relationship that encourages and supports students during their degrees and ultimately leads them on a path to a STEM career. Mentors are invaluable for sharing their wisdom and knowledge of the industry, helping students network and build valuable contacts, and answering any questions they may have along the way. A number of mentorship programs exist nationally, and many schools also have formal mentor programs available to students. Great examples of programs include:
    4. Career Support. Once deciding to pursue a degree in STEM, the next challenge for women and minority students is finding the right job. Many STEM departments and career support offices on college campuses now recognize this need and provide support mechanisms and networking opportunities to ensure students are qualified and competitive candidates upon graduation.

After completing her degree in Applied and Computational Math at the University of Washington, Natalia Burina has gone on to an exciting career, leading product teams at eBay, Samsung and Microsoft. In 2014 she founded Parable, a creative photo networking program. We spoke to her about the path she took to enter the STEM industry and what has encouraged and inspired her along the way.

Did you pursue STEM subjects in high school? Did you receive support in those pursuits?

I was on the college preparatory track in high school. It included STEM subjects; advanced placement calculus, honors chemistry, advanced placement biology and physics. Academic achievement was always very important in my family. I received support and encouragement from my parents.

How did you come to pursue a STEM degree, and were you aware of the underrepresentation/notion of the field being male-dominated at the time?

I was always pretty good at math. I first tried programming in college and liked it. When I started I wasn’t aware of underrepresentation of women in the field. Over time it became apparent that I was in a male-dominated field; all of my classes had more men than women. I would always be the only female or one of a few girls in class. I relished the times when I was top of class, proving the naysaying boys wrong. It wasn’t an issue in college. Doing well was simply a matter of putting in the work.

Have you encountered any unique difficulties as a minority/female working in your profession?

I encountered difficulties when interviewing at companies where I did not know anyone. My work experience and accomplishments were met with a lot of skepticism.

Women and minorities face negative bias professionally. A number of studies have shown that identical job applications or resumes are evaluated differently based on whether they are labeled with a male or female name. A study from researchers at Columbia Business School which asked students to appraise the resume of an entrepreneur called Howard Roizen who had worked at Apple, launched his own software company and was a partner at a venture capital firm. The students rated him highly and thought that he was likable. The problem was that Howard does not exist. His resume was that of Heidi Roizen. When asked to review Heidi’s resume, students thought that she was selfish and less competent.

What encouragement can you give to women and minorities who want to pursue a STEM degree/career but are concerned about the uneven demographics?

The benefits of working in a STEM career far outweigh any obstacles that come with being an underrepresented group. Compensation is generous and opportunities exist that allow for a lot of independence, freedom and creativity. When I worked at eBay and Microsoft my work directly impacted millions of people.

It’s important to own your success and push for what you want and need regardless of what other people think. Anyone who reaches success will run into obstacles and must develop a healthy dose of emotional resilience.

What role does mentorship play for women/minorities interested in STEM topics? Was there someone who encouraged you along the way?

Mentorship is essential. Nobody makes it alone. If you’re not lucky enough to have it already, I strongly recommend that you seek it out.

I am profoundly grateful to my English as a Second Language teacher Gail Elad. I will never forget her kindness at a time that was very difficult for me personally. Gail helped me to adapt when I first immigrated to United States. After completing a year with her I was fully fluent in English and was doing so well academically that I skipped sixth grade.

  • Science.gov offers an exhaustive list of internship and fellowship opportunities for undergraduate students.
  • NASA offers a variety of research and educational programs for minority students interested in pursuing a related career.
  • Pathways to Science provides a list of paid summer research positions and internships, scholarships, short term opportunities and post-graduation programs related to STEM fields.
  • STEMcareer offers lots of helpful information for both high school and college students about how to pick the right college, selecting a major and finding hands-on experiences.
  • PBS’s Nova Labs has a list of resources relevant to high school and college students, with information about potential careers and role models.
  • Exxon offers the Be an Engineer program, which gives interested students a behind-the-scenes look at the life of an engineer and the types of projects they are able to undertake once graduating.
  • Rice University created the Cool Science Careers page for middle and high school students to have an interactive way of learning about what awaits them should they decide to pursue a STEM-related degree.

Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives