The lack of women representation in the sciences is nothing new. Solving the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields has been a goal for workplaces and activists groups for decades. And it’s started to work; never before have so many women received bachelor’s degrees in the sciences. In the United States between 2010 to 2019, roughly 57% of four-year college degrees earned in STEM topics.
However, while an increasing number of STEM bachelor’s degrees are being earned by women, research shows this seemingly major cultural shift is not wide-spread or long-lived, and not translated to the professional workforce.
A report published in 2017 by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research shows that women are widely under-represented in math-intensive fields such as engineering, economics, and computer science. The report found women earn more PhDs in STEM fields like psychology and life and social sciences (approximately 73 and 58% were women, respectively) compared to the drastically smaller number of women earning PhDs in engineering or economics (22 and 34%, respectively).
This translates directly to the workforce. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that while 75% of health-related positions were held by women from 2014 to 2016, women made up only 25% of the workforce in computer-related occupations, and only 14% of the workforce in engineering fields.
So why do these differences exist? Why, if more than half of the four-year degrees earned in the U.S. are received by female students, do women not hold at least that same proportion of STEM jobs?
The Problem is Direct and Subtle
Dr. Brooke Penaluna is a Research Fisheries Biologist at the US Forest Service Forestry Sciences Laboratory. She lives in town with her husband Dr. Ivan Arismendi, an Associate Professor at Oregon State University, their two daughters, and a chocolate lab. She got her PhD eight years ago and specializes in aquatic ecology and salmonids of the Pacific Northwest, but has also published research on diversity in the fisheries sciences workforce itself.
When asked about the barriers to female success in her field, she described one of the most persistent obstacles being numerous forms of microaggression.
“I don’t think proper credit is always or often attributed to women who work, and there’s more than enough credit attributed to men who may not have done all that work,” Penaluna said. She gave examples of researchers presenting novel work at conferences, and failing to acknowledge female students or co-researchers that did a substantial amount of the legwork.
Along the same thread, she explained that personally, she has noticed discrepancies in how men and women get addressed around OSU, where the USFS Forestry Sciences Laboratory is located.
“Colleagues and students will call my husband Dr. Arismendi,” she said. “I’ll just get called Brooke.”
Penaluna also discussed childcare as a woman who works in a STEM field. It’s challenging, and inequities exist for this too in how fathers and mothers are treated. “My husband will bring our kids to work and people will say “aw how cute,” but when I bring our kids to work they’re not “cute,” they’re a nuisance,” she said.
She believes that if both mothers and fathers acknowledge their co-parenting duties, there may be more respect for raising children, regardless of the parents’ gender. According to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019, parenting contributes substantially to the gender gap seen in the STEM workforce. While the study found that almost 25% of new first-time fathers leave their full-time STEM occupation to attend to their child, that percentage is nearly doubled for women who have their first child. Both cultural expectations as well as difficulties parenting while holding a rigorous full-time scientific career were identified as reasons for the loss of so many first-time mothers.
An accomplished fisheries research scientist, Penaluna has regularly attended scientific conferences to present her work, including Oregon Chapter American Fisheries Science (ORAFS) meetings. About 13 years ago, when she had her first child, she was faced with the dilemma – how could both she and her husband attend this important professional meeting to communicate their science, and still care for their infant?
So Penaluna started the ORAFS Daycare program, which provides childcare for young children of the academics and professionals in attendance at the conference. Every year, Penaluna had to purposefully convince the society’s committee that the program was worth investing in for the wellbeing and equal opportunities it provided to researchers.
“I had to make it [daycare at the conference] a necessity, because otherwise I couldn’t go to the meeting,” she said.
Diversity of All in STEM
Dr. Tala Navab-Daneshmand is an Assistant Professor and Lab Director in the College of Engineering at OSU. Her research focuses on pathogens and bacteria in the drinking water infrastructure humans use every day, and she uses a combination of environmental science, engineering, and math to find solutions to potential public health hazards.
Not only is she a global scholar having conducted research in numerous countries, but she is originally from Iran. Living and studying in Iranian universities and working across the globe, she has experienced the benefits of working on highly diverse teams.
“In general, in the U.S., engineering is diverse, but maybe less so here,” Navab-Daneshmand said, pointing out that while OSU’s campus is very diverse in its composition of students, research staff, and faculty of different ethnicities and backgrounds, this is only compared to the rest of Oregon, of which 76% of the state’s residents are white.
Scientific American has published numerous articles investigating the benefits of social, gender, and racial diversity in the sciences. Experts understand that a team of scientists from various backgrounds often think up solutions and produce research that is the most unique, primarily because people from different walks of life will look at a problem in different ways. There is also the possibility for a loss of talent associated with less diverse groups, which is an obvious disadvantage for science, engineering, and medicine.
When asked about what is lacking from the STEM education her two young daughters are receiving in their schools, Penaluna replied “I think the sciences in general is strong, my issue is with cultural competency.”
She pointed out that there are barriers to access STEM opportunities and occupations in the U.S. that affect a huge fraction of the population, whether that is people with disabilities, of non-white races, or of differing socioeconomic backgrounds.
Considering how to close the gender inequity gap in STEM fields, Navab-Daneshmand believes focusing on diversity in science as a whole may be the answer. “The more we advance in that and become more inclusive, the more we would have chances for female students to be attracted to the science,” she said.
What Needs to be Done
The lack of women in engineering and computer sciences has been attributed to numerous factors that come from larger societal thinking to workplace atmosphere. A review conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that cultural ideas of what people in engineering and computer sciences should look like, a lack of mentors, and poor support of a work-life balance are just a few factors that have led to the so few women holding jobs in the area of STEM.
“I don’t buy into ‘everyone’s the same’ – no, we have differences, and they’re important and advantageous,” said Katie Rabe, an Environmental Engineer at Jacobs Engineering in Corvallis. “Men and women have different things to offer. We think differently. Both are equally important, it’s just as important to have both men and women at the table when making decisions that affect the world and technology and engineering.”
Rabe received her Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Engineering from OSU, and she has seen the imbalance in gender representation as she has progressed through her career. At OSU, her classes were about half male and half female, which is reflected in the fact that half of STEM degrees are earned by women in the U.S.
This balance changed when Rabe entered the workforce — engineering tends to be a male dominant industry. However, when she first started at her position, the firm she was hired by was CH2M (since bought by Jacbos), and she had a positive, motivating experience.
“When I first started, I was mentored and trained by women,” she said. “Our CEO [at CH2M] was a woman, she was really experienced, well respected. I was really proud to be a part of that.”
Many women in STEM are not so lucky. When asked about female role models or mentors she had throughout her early career, Penaluna recalled she didn’t really have any, or more specifically, any who had the lifestyle she wanted to create for herself. “I didn’t have any mentors or role models ahead of me who had both children and a career,” she said, and later clarified she didn’t know anyone with both a career and multiple children, which she knew she wanted.
Both Penaluna and Rabe, who is due to have her first baby in June, can serve as role models and inspire women who want both a family and a career. This is promising for the upcoming generation, as women who have incorporated both childcare and professional science into their lives are finally starting to become more prevalent in the STEM workforce.
Other than the fact that parenthood and professional science both require intense dedication, one specific barrier to parents, both male and female, working in STEM careers is our culture’s definition of accomplishment. One thing Penaluna thinks needs to happen for STEM to be more inclusive of scientists who are parents and of different ethnic backgrounds is to redefine what we consider success.
“By broadening it [the definition of success] out, we need to add new metrics for the tenure process in academia or for how federal government is rated,” Penaluna said, describing how doing so could allow hiring management of STEM organizations to better navigate potential candidates by understanding their experience in Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DEI), and their idea and support of varying work-life balances.
Motivation and Advice
“Build and nurture self-confidence,” is one of Rabe’s biggest suggestions for how girls and women can persist in STEM. She noted early on in college she was intimidated by the math and science courses she was enrolled in.
“Over time you will fail, and that is okay, but build that mental resilience to get back up on the horse,” she said. “I’d encourage women and girls to push through the challenges – it’s ok to not know everything all at once, it takes time.”
Navab-Daneshmand had similar advice.
“Being open, open to opportunity. Not being scared,” she said. “Don’t listen to anyone or anything that puts a barrier in front of you, we can do anything.”
Penaluna believes finding an ally or allies to support you through your process is invaluable. Whether you are a young girl, woman, parent, or non-white scientist, this could be instrumental in continuing to learn and work in STEM when you become confronted by obstacles.
Following your passions in STEM even through times of hardship can increase one’s confidence and feeling of connectedness within the world.
When asked why women should care about science and working in STEM, Navab-Daneshmand’s excitement was evident. “Because science is the rule of life,” she said. “Science is how we drink clean water, science is how we’re healthy, it’s engineering science, it’s social science, it’s just the rule of life. It’s everything. There’s so many different fields. There’s space for anyone to find their passion in it.”