As part of NJBIZ’s latest virtual discussion, women from New Jersey’s academic and business worlds spoke about the persisting gap in gender diversity when it comes to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and what can be done to create greater equity.
Moderated by NJBIZ Editor Jeff Kanige, the May 18 panel featured:
During the 90-minute roundtable discussion, panelists dove into topics such as barriers toward a more diverse STEM workforce and why the representation of women varies across these occupations, as well as their thoughts on recruitment and retention.
According to the Pew Research Center, women make up a large majority of all workers in health-related positions, but remain underrepresented in other job clusters, such as physical sciences, engineering and computing. And while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like computer science and engineering—areas where they are significantly underrepresented, research shows.
Despite longstanding efforts to increase diversity in STEM, panelists said much more needs to be done to achieve that goal.
According to Pophristic, “There has been progress, but it is not sufficient … For example, when we look into sciences and look into different types of sciences, mathematics and computer science, versus physics and chemistry versus biological and life sciences, we see differences. And, in computer sciences and mathematics, the progress has been the slowest. Then, comes physics and chemistry, which is a little better. Then, life sciences and biological sciences – that is where we are inching closer to the demographics of 50-50 distribution.”
“It does take time to move from where we work to where we need to be. Culture does not change overnight. We need, I believe, more women in leadership positions in the workforce. We need those role models and people in power who are going to set a different tone and change things that need to be changed, so that the progress is faster,” she also said.
Although STEM workers often earn more than those in other industries, woman face sizeable pay gaps compared to men in the field, which is problematic, Pophristic said.
“Where in life sciences it’s kind of equal. But when you go into physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering, women are paid significantly less than men in comparable positions with comparable credentials,” she said.
Stillwell agreed, saying there has been “very little change” in the construction industry since she began in the field back in 1969 and that it remains male-dominated.
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Despite an increased number of degrees awarded in STEM fields by colleges and universities in the U.S., research shows there is little indication that will dramatically boost gender, racial and ethnic representation in related jobs in the near term.
Stillwell said, “I’m wondering if we should be addressing this at the younger level – third grade, fourth grade … I’m wondering if the teachers were talking about those types of opportunities, if we might see more women in the future. There is the starting point where I think we’re just not addressing it.”
Pophristic believes more students would pursue STEM majors in college if there was better exposure to science while they are in elementary, middle and high schools.
“Everybody [parents and educational system] needs to be involved and I think there are opportunities for more. There are a lot of opportunities at the university level with certain pre-university programs. And, I think that primary education is doing its part, but it could be more,” she said. “Retention in STEM K-12 is also another point. Once these students are in the classes and facing the challenges, how do we retain them?”
That’s where role models come in, Pophristic said.
“There are things in in our culture, where you know the success is measured by the earning potential, the earnings or the power. And I don’t think we talking enough about the meaning of work, and how much joy meaning of work brings. And when I turn around and look at scientists – they’re really happy walking out of a lab and discovering something,” she said, adding, “I think we need to talk more to young people in principle about what type of joy and meaningfulness that careers in STEM bring.”
And, post-pandemic, she believes the younger generation is more open to the notion of a career built on purpose and meaning.
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“I think this is the right time for us as a society to have this conversation about. What are other things that are obtained from a career – beyond the financial means and some power in the society,” Pophristic said.
Tukel agreed, “Early on, maybe we need to celebrate all these geniuses and amazing inventions. It seems like society needs to re-rank the order of what’s more important for us because many of us don’t know who invented what. I mean, our lives changed so much with little inventions that we have no idea.
“But if you quiz a typical student, even in higher education, give like 10 products in the market or 10 tools that have been invented and asked them who invented they wouldn’t know,” she said. “But, if you give them the scores and players in the NBA, they will all know everything about it, and the football players and American Idol winners last year.”
“Inventors do not get the fame that they deserve, so the students are not looking up to them when they are younger. I think we just as a society need to start emphasizing that more. And that’s definitely going to change some of the girls, and you know, even boys,” she said.
Stillwell stressed the importance of providing guidance to younger generations, whether that support comes from professional organizations or academic settings.
“I’m on the board at Monmouth University and I see the young freshmen coming in,” she said. “They’re not sure where they want to be and they’re not sure what they want to do. So, it’s really a matter of mentoring, tutoring and having them be engaged in different organizations. That will give them some exposure to things that they may have never ever thought about.”
A full recap of the panel will be available in the June 5 issue of NJBIZ.