The Biggest Barriers for Women in STEM | BestColleges (2023)

Women must tackle unique obstacles in STEM careers. Learn about the factors that contribute to the lack of women — especially women of color — in STEM.

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An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...

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Updated April 13, 2023

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The Biggest Barriers for Women in STEM | BestColleges (4)

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  • The number of women in STEM has fallen flat after years of growth.
  • Women played a critical role in the early development of STEM, particularly computing.
  • Today's women face unique barriers in STEM, including gender bias and a wage gap.
  • Those interested in pursuing a STEM career can seek mentors and scholarships for women.

If STEM careers offer premier growth and earnings, what are the barriers to working in STEM? For one, most STEM careers require a college degree. On top of that, women face unique obstacles when pursuing STEM careers.

Although women's representation in STEM has increased dramatically since 1970, those strides have leveled off in recent years. Despite computer science being the largest-growing stem field, the number of women working in computing has dropped 7 percentage points from 2000 to 2016 and has remained stable since that year.

So what's the overall outlook for women interested in technical fields? Here, we dive into the challenges and opportunities for women looking to establish a STEM career.

Gender Bias Pushes Women Away From STEM

Women face unique challenges when pursuing STEM careers. Stereotypes about women's abilities start early, often undermining their confidence in their mathematical and technical skills. Even girls as young as 3 or 4 can fall prey to these stereotypes.

Gender Bias in Early Education

Some educators underestimate girls' math abilities, encouraging them, either openly or tacitly, to abandon their STEM ambitions. For instance, according to several studies, teachers awarded lower grades to girls for the same math work as boys.

Gender stereotypes also shape career ambitions. When asked to draw a scientist or mathematician, girls drew a man twice as often as they did a woman, and boys almost always drew a man.

As a result of these social and cultural factors, girls typically begin opting out of STEM courses at an early age, despite being just as capable of thriving in STEM careers as their male peers. In 2018, the, the National Assessment of Educational Progress measured boys' and girls' proficiency in technology and engineering subjects and found that the girls' scores declined, contributing to the gender gap in STEM.

College Women Face Gender Bias in STEM

Although women earn more bachelor's degrees overall than men, they account for just 36% of STEM bachelor's degrees. Men also vastly outnumber women in some of the highest-paying majors: 4 in 5 degree-holders in engineering and computer science are men.

Gender Bias in STEM Workplaces

Women who enter the STEM workforce face steep barriers to success. In male-dominated fields, women may feel forced out by exclusionary cultures.

A lack of parental leave policies hurts women more than men. In an eight-year study of STEM professionals, researchers found that 43% of women in STEM careers left their full-time job within 4-7 years of having their first child, while only 23% of men did the same.

These patterns suggest a roadblock in women's career advancement that their men colleagues do not face to the same degree, said Erin Cech, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of a paper on the study. Women's departure [from STEM] means a loss of knowledge and expertise from STEM that is disadvantageous for innovation and scientific inquiry.

Today, women don't have nearly as many role models or potential mentors as men. And this problem is even worse for women of color.

Women of Color in STEM Face Unique Challenges

Overall, Black and Hispanic Americans remain underrepresented in STEM careers. A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that Black Americans make up 9% of STEM workers but 11% of the overall workforce. Hispanic Americans make up 7% of STEM workers and 16% of the workforce.

Women of color face some of the biggest hurdles in STEM occupations. In 2022, Black and Hispanic and Indigenous women, and other underrepresented women of color, made up less than 10% of the STEM workforce in the U.S.

Women of color also leave STEM career tracks at every stage of education. Black and Hispanic undergraduates declare STEM majors at the same rate as white students but are more likely to switch majors to pursue a non-STEM degree.

The lack of representation grows worse at the leadership level. In 2016, the National Science Foundation reported that 24% of Black women who earned a doctorate studied a STEM field. Yet in 2017, Black men and women made up only 5% of STEM managers.

The STEM Gender Wage Gap

Today, women earn approximately 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Several factors contribute to the gender wage gap, including differences in industries, job titles, and experience.

But even within STEM careers, women consistently earn less than men. According to Pew Research Center, white men working in STEM make $85,000, or $24,000 more per year than white women in STEM — in other words, a 40% higher salary.

The STEM wage gap is greater for Black and Hispanic women. Black women working in STEM make around $52,700 per year, whereas Hispanic women make $52,000 per year.

Why is there such a large wage gap in the STEM workforce? A December 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that what women major in plays a critical role in the gender wage gap. Within STEM, women tend to choose lower-paying majors, which leads them into different STEM careers than men.

While women account for nearly half of all biological scientists (whose median salary sits at around $82,220), they make up only a quarter of computer and mathematical occupations and a paltry 16% of engineers, many of whom earn over $100,000 a year.

The above study points to a confidence gap that can start as early as elementary school. Stereotypes about women's ability to succeed in STEM drive many women away from majors seen as more technical or challenging.

However, the pay gap isn't limited to choice of study. Even within academic majors, women earn lower salaries than men.


How to Find Opportunities for Women in STEM

Despite the barriers women continue to face in STEM, there is some good news. Compared with a generation ago, women have many more opportunities to seek out mentors, role models, and support when pursuing STEM careers. STEM majors can learn more about pioneering women in science, technology, and medicine, or check out lists like Crain's Notable Women in STEM.

Mentors help women plan out their careers and advance in their fields. A number of organizations offer mentorship opportunities specifically for women in STEM. For example, Encouraging Women Across All Borders mentors students and early-career professionals. You can also research STEM career paths using the BLS periodic table of STEM careers.

Students also benefit from scholarships encouraging women to pursue STEM degrees. Refer to our guide to learn how to find scholarships.

STEM graduates should look for employers who are committed to pay equity. These policies have particularly been shown to increase the number of Black women holding STEM jobs.

Unfortunately, some of the challenges women face in STEM remain out of women's control. As the 2020 Women in STEM Workforce Index explains, In an equitable workforce, men and women enjoy equal representation and equal pay. We're not there yet in the fields of STEM.

Women have made enormous strides in STEM over the past few generations. By continuing to push for equal representation and equal pay, women and men can make STEM a more diverse and inclusive field.

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