Women in STEM: Challenges, Trends, and Pioneers Who Changed the World

by | Mar 13, 2022 | blog

Women represent half of Americans employed in STEM and STEM-related jobs – an extraordinary victory only made possible by trailblazing women who fought back against centuries of sexism in universities and labs around the world.

As of 2019, for the first time in history, women account for 50.2% of the college-educated workforce in the US. Although they have consistently outpaced men in earning bachelor’s degrees since the early 1980s, institutional sexism in hiring practices has long prevented women from achieving gender parity in employment. Men overwhelmingly dominate many industries, and the glass ceiling is particularly thick in traditionally male fields, such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Historical underrepresentation results not from lack of interest or skill but centuries of exclusion from educational institutions, hindering their opportunities for success.

Women in STEM Face Challenges from a Young Age

Colleges and universities have come a long way in providing equal access to both sexes, but stereotypes about women’s aptitudes for science and math still begin nearly the moment they take their first steps into a school building. Even though gender differences in academic performance are rarely evident at this age, many girls lose confidence in mathematics by third grade. Teachers start to underestimate girls’ math abilities as early as preschool and (often unintentionally) pass “math anxiety” onto their female students. They assume that girls must work harder to achieve at the same level as boys, set higher standards for them, grade their work more harshly, and encourage them (openly or implicitly) to abandon ambitions in STEM fields. Female scientists and engineers also receive less recognition than their male counterparts, meaning girls have fewer role models to inspire their interest.

Whether they recognize it or not, girls are significantly influenced by these stereotypes. In a landmark study published in 1983, researchers who asked elementary-aged students to draw a scientist found that only 28 of 5,000 drawings or 0.6% featured a female scientist (none of which were drawn by boys). A comprehensive meta-analysis of results from the “Draw a Scientist Test” reports that this has improved over the years, and from the 1980s onward, 28% of drawings featured female scientists. This bias against women in STEM continues to shape their educational and career ambitions as they age. Eighth-grade girls opt of these courses at higher rates, despite the fact that they outperform boys in technology and engineering subjects.

Sexism Continues to Impact Women in STEM Educational Attainment

Women who can overcome these initial obstacles and pursue undergraduate studies in STEM face additional challenges in higher education. Even though scientific progress depends on the ability to recognize and root out bias, individual scientists are clearly not immune to gender stereotyping. In a study conducted at Yale University, researchers distributed job applications for lab manager positions to STEM faculty members that were randomly assigned male or female names. In the absence of any other difference between candidates, faculty members rated the men as more competent, were more willing to provide mentorship to men, more likely to hire men than women, and were prepared to pay men $4,000 more for the same work.

In the face of such discouragement, a record-setting 50% of women in STEM and STEM-related jobs is not only impressive – it’s downright remarkable. Women now earn a majority of all bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees awarded in the US. According to 2019 data analyzed by Pew Research, women in STEM account for 53% of bachelor’s degrees, 60% of master’s degrees, 48% of doctorate degrees, and 58% of professional doctorate degrees in health sciences. However, progress remains uneven across various fields. As of 2018, women earned 85% of bachelor’s degrees in healthcare, but only 22% in engineering and 19% in computer science. A mere 30% of master’s or research doctoral degrees in engineering and computer science were earned by women.

Career Success Varies Greatly By Field, Sex, and Race

In 2019, more than 19 million workers were employed in STEM occupations, an increase of almost 2 million since 2016. While women are on track for making persistent (albeit rather slow) progress in these industries, their presence varies significantly based on the field they enter. Women comprise 74% of healthcare practitioners and technicians, 64% of veterinarians, 46% of optometrists, and 38% of physicians/surgeons. Outside of the medical world, women account for 40% of the country’s physical scientists, 48% of life scientists, and 47% of mathematical workers. Yet they are still underrepresented in computing (25%), engineering (15%), and atmospheric and space science (24%). It is important to note that women with degrees in computing and engineering are also less likely than men to be working in this field.

However, as in other male-dominated industries, women in STEM still face pervasive discrimination in the workplace, including being treated as incompetent due to their gender, having their contributions ignored by colleagues, receiving less support from seniors leaders than men in the same positions, and being passed over for assignments or promotions they are qualified for. They experience isolation due to exclusionary work cultures, contend with various forms of sexual harassment, and leave their positions at higher rates for men. Women are also more negatively affected by the lack of parental leave policies. After becoming parents to their first child, 43% of women in STEM transition to part-time work, switch fields, or leave the workforce entirely within four to seven years, compared to 23% of men.

Furthermore, obtaining a job does not always translate to earning a fair income. Although STEM workers earn substantially more than other types of workers, sizable pay gaps continue to exist between men and women and across racial groups. Pew Research reports that women in STEM earn approximately 74% of what men earn in the same positions (a median of $66,200 vs. $90,000). Women earn more than men in only one STEM field – computer network architecture. The pay gap is even greater for Black and Hispanic workers. The median earnings for White workers in STEM equal $78,000, while Black full-time, year-round STEM workers earn $61,100 (or 78% of White workers earn), and Hispanic workers earn $65,000 (83%). Black and Hispanic women consistently achieve the lowest earnings out of all STEM workers, and this pay gap persists when controlling for education and job characteristics.

Women in STEM Who Changed the World

While Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and other male scientists have made important and far-reaching discoveries, many vital contributions by female scientists have been largely ignored, forgotten, or overshadowed by their male colleagues.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, learn more about some of history’s most influential women in STEM. These trailblazers broke boundaries, created innovative solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing problems, and enriched scientific knowledge for generations to come.

  • Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is considered the first computer programmer for her work on the Analytical Engine, the world’s first digital computer.
  • Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912) led the campaign for legislation allowing women in Britain to earn medical degrees and obtain licenses to practice medicine.
  • Marie Curie (1867-1934) pioneered the use of radium for treatment of cancer tumors and established the use of X-ray machines to treat soldiers in World War I.
  • Lise Meitner (1878-1968) discovered that uranium splits in half and releases energy as it decays, naming this reaction “nuclear fission.”
  • Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916) developed the first effective treatment for leprosy by isolating the active components of chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable composition.
  • Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) established that chromosomes form the basis of genetic material and that they can change position on a genome, switching traits on or off.
  • Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was an orbital mechanics mathematician who performed calculations by hand that were essential to the success of the first US crewed spaceflight.
  • Brenda Milner (1918-) revolutionized our understanding of neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience through over three decades of work with the famous patient HM.
  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) contributed to the discovery of DNA’s double helix-shaped structure and provided new insight into the molecular structure of viruses.
  • Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003) was the first Black woman to earn a Chemistry Ph.D. in the US and discovered the connection between cholesterol and heart health.
  • Gladys West (1930-) created a program that could model Earth’s exact shape, which would later be instrumental in the development of GPS technology.
  • Flossie Wong-Staal (1947-2020) was the first scientist to clone HIV and create a gene map of the virus to determine its function, a major step in proving it caused AIDS.

What we can’t know are the women who would’ve made incredible strides had it not been for historical setbacks.

The Future of Women in STEM

Although women face unique challenges in STEM, their efforts will only continue to advance our understanding of the world and inspire young girls to follow their passions. According to occupational employment projections from the Bureau of Labor, researchers estimate that STEM employment growth will surpass economy-wide employment growth from 2019 to 2029 at 9.2% (vs. 3.7% overall).

As the demand for STEM skills continues to skyrocket, it is crucial that women receive equal opportunities to pursue and thrive in these fields. Not only does this contribute to gender parity in these vital fields, but it also strengthens our entire nation by ensuring we benefit from a diverse and talented workforce. Making STEM education and careers accessible and welcoming for women, particularly women of color, can help build an inclusive and rewarding future for us all.