Why Your Daughter Should Be in STEM Fields
The future is bright for technology and engineering jobs in the United States. White-collar technology jobs seem to be the most profitable and reliable in the country, and with new tech startups popping up every day, there is no shortage of positions for skilled individuals to fill.
However, more and more companies are looking to diversify their staffs. Yet, there has been an unfortunate cultural trend in the U.S. that suggests that women are inherently less capable of doing the work in STEM fields then men are, which has led to a further reduction of the number of women in these fields overall.
With that in mind, we are going to take time to work through STEM fields and discuss how women have historically worked in them. Then we want to offer some of the main reasons why your young daughter, wife, or even female friends should follow their passion in STEM fields.
What is “STEM”?
Education or employment in any field related to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics is typically referred to as “STEM” fields.
Why do we lump these into a single category?
Most of the private- and public-sector jobs available in any one category will often overlap significantly with the others. For example, a job as an IT administrator, a computer programmer, or a database administrator is going to be considered in the “technology” field. But the job will be in a competitive job market tied to mathematics, science, and engineering. The relationship between all these fields has made the term “STEM” serve as a catch-all for industries that deal with anything scientific or technology-related.
However, the term is also very specific. Researchers in chemistry or biology are just as much a part of STEM as a computer programmer or a mechanical engineer. However, because these fields often rely on the same foundation (mathematics, logic, and experimentation) they get put together in the same category.
This categorization is common across many universities in the United States where many areas of study related to any STEM concept are in a department of engineering or the sciences.
Woman and the History of STEM
The unfortunate truth, however, is that not everyone has been welcomed into STEM fields. Women have had difficulty finding work or support in these areas. This is quite ironic, in that women have often been at the forefront of scientific discovery, engineering efforts, technological development and education for the last 75 years. For example:
- The birth of computer programming is attributed to Ada Lovelace, who developed a system of programming based on the Analytic Engine machines developed by Charles Babbage.
- Women are integral to the birth of modern computers in several settings. Women were the first operators of the large, room-filling ENIAC computers. Scientists (typically male) would provide computations that they wanted completed, and women in charge of managing the hardware would literally program the computations into the computer. This meant that they needed to understand the physical workings of the computers, but also how to make those calculations through a series of switches, electrical charges, and circuits.
- If you’ve seen the movie Hidden Figures, you’ll also know that women engineers and mathematicians were a key part of NASA’s space program in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, women were some of the first to learn how to use early IBM supercomputers to help NASA accurately design and implement space traveling technology.
The list goes on. In fact, women are so integral to the advancement of STEM research in private, public, and military applications that it is a bit odd that few of us know about it. While NASA has an entire page dedicated to female astronauts, scientists, and engineers, popular stereotypes still exist.
The truth is that at some point in the mid-twentieth century, a stereotype emerged that said that women couldn’t, and didn’t want to, engage in many of the jobs in STEM fields. This affected how people making decisions in technology or science-driven businesses would see women as potential job candidates or board members. Over time, it just became understood that women don’t like math and science because they are women.
The Technology Boom and Modern American Employment
As the stereotype about women in STEM fields continued, the state of STEM and technology-related jobs changed in many ways.
- Technology, specifically computer technology, grew immensely. What was once the job of a lone programmer on a single computer quickly expanded to development teams that spanned the globe. Computers and computer programs became much more complex as new technologies and market demands grew.
- With the rise of the modern PC and Windows, computers became mainstream appliances rather than specialty devices for academics or businesspeople. This led to an explosion of new software and hardware that fit a consumer market.
- New applications changed the way that software could impact our lives—games, social media, and mobile computing all took the place of the stand-alone workstation with business apps.
These changes fundamentally shifted how technology was built and sold. It wasn’t just enough to be able to program—you needed to know multiple languages, across multiple systems. It wasn’t enough to understand how to develop a piece of software—you had to be able to work with large, dynamic teams to build multi-platform software for markets across the globe. Software requires hardware, and choosing them is as much a business decision as a technical one.
Most importantly, the stereotype that STEM work simply requires a focused, analytical mind (which was the mind of male students and workers) gave way to the major collaborative and managerial necessities of real technological development. Solving problems was one thing, but envisioning entirely new ways to build things as a team required new perspectives than what came out of male-dominated fields.
The truth is that if roughly half of the population was told from a young age that they weren’t good at something, you are going to see less of those people in roles pertaining to that field. And you’re going to miss out on the perspectives they might bring to the table.
Why Your Daughter Should Consider a STEM Field
The fact is, there hasn’t been a better time than now for young women to get into STEM fields.
- More companies are looking to diversify their technical staff along lines of race, gender, and nationality. For example, Google has an entire page dedicated to their internal and external reporting on diversity in its workplace. They state that their best work happens when diverse perspectives come together to solve problems, and they create a workplace environment that reflects that.
- More scholarships and grants support women in STEM now than ever before. These funds are meant to help young women pursue their work and to encourage them to see STEM as a viable career path.
- STEM jobs pay well. On average, they are much higher than other comparable jobs. More importantly, more women in these higher paying jobs can remove the stigma of men being the sole providers. They can erase the dreaded “wage gap.”
- Research and innovation in a STEM field that doesn’t incorporate women’s perspectives can be incredibly limiting to how those issues are represented elsewhere. Consider, for example, women’s reproductive science, gender science (or more accurately, the scientific misreading regarding gender and sexuality), and the role of women in business or leading start-ups.
It is most important, however, if your daughter actually enjoys doing science or working with technology. If she does, then there is nothing that should limit her in doing that.
Is There Any Truth to the Stereotypes? Debunking Claims Against Women
Not really, at least not in the sense that many claim.
The common refrain you might hear falls into two broad categories:
- Women’s minds aren’t suited for the complex, logical, and experimental nature of STEM.
- Women aren’t as naturally competitive or aggressive, which means they won’t succeed in the rough and tumble STEM world.
So… where to begin.
The first claim has never been supported through actual scientific thought or investigation. Trends in the gender makeup of STEM jobs show an increase in male workers, but this doesn’t account for why this trend exists. A study published in Psychological Science argued that trends in male- or female-dominated STEM fields relied on cultural norms and pressures more so than any perceived biological aptitude. For example, men in several Middle Eastern countries are less likely to feel comfortable with math than women. Likewise, women in poor countries might excel in STEM fields because these jobs are their only way to escape a repressive or ultra-orthodox culture.
So, it isn’t the case that natural skills decide if men or women can or cannot do a job. It is by and large cultural pressure that makes people feel comfortable pursuing a professional path.
As for the second claim, men have been shown to be more naturally aggressive or competitive than women due to certain evolutionary impulses. However, these impulses are not uniform across all men, and not all men are aggressive. Likewise, many women in modern society can be very aggressive or competitive in any field. Oftentimes, however, we perceive competitive women negatively while we view competitive men as strong or admirable.
All of this is to say that women usually get the message through their culture that they aren’t suited for STEM work because either it is too hard for their female minds or because they don’t have the strength to do it. But the truth of the matter is that women do succeed in STEM to a greater or lesser degree depending on the messages they receive.
New Perspectives for Technology Companies
As the stigma for women in STEM decreases and the demand for competent people who can innovate, understand technology, and work well with others increases, companies will continue to hire as many diverse perspectives as possible. They want the best pool of workers they can get to support their continued success. Companies are aware that there are several cultural limitations that keep them from finding these workers.
If your daughter is looking to break into STEM fields, then encourage her. Let her experiment, play with computers, or better understand how to work with others in a technical setting. Not only is the future bright for STEM experts in the foreseeable future, but everyone, no matter their gender, should be able to pursue their dreams.