While women make up a large majority of all workers in health-related positions, they remain underrepresented in other job clusters such as physical sciences, engineering and computing, according to the Pew Research Center.
And although women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in such fields as computer science and engineering—areas where they are significantly underrepresented, research shows.
As part of NJBIZ’s latest virtual panel 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 a variety of topics including barriers toward a more diverse STEM workforce and why the representation of women varies across these occupations. They also shared thoughts on recruitment and retention.
Pophristic said, “I think it goes back to expectations, culture, communication, style. All of those have been shaped by the majority that has shaped higher education in principle, which is white men.”
“Sometimes it’s good to be bosses, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes we resemble men and that’s good. Sometimes we are seen as ‘oh, why are you doing that as a woman?’ Sometimes being soft is not good and sometimes it is good,” she commented. “We just don’t know because we are new to moving in this space that was defined by others.”
“I mean, women will always face this – the moment of when they are in their late twenties or thirties of how to balance work and life. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have enough of the polices and regulations that help women balance it,” she 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. “I do see that there is more attention paid to diversity, but I don’t see a whole lot of change,” she said. “In some cases, I honestly believe that there are women being hired not because they’re qualified but because they [companies] feel they need to build a diversity position.
“But I do think we have not made big strides. I see it myself. But at Hansen, and maybe because we’re a privately held company … we’re going to hire the right person for the position – whether it’s a male or female,” Stillwell added. “Because we believe we would be doing an injustice if we hired a woman just to hire a woman. But there’s so many qualified women out there that really are just being passed up.”
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.”
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“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 explained.
Tukel agreed, saying, “There is some work that needs to be done. But I have to say that in universities … I see much more progress in the last 10 years in terms of equal opportunity employment.”
“Universities are doing much more than they have done before,” she said, citing initiatives such as human leadership committees focused on closing the gap. “It’s just that we have to sustain these efforts and put more funding behind it to make it impactful.”
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 they had greater exposure to science while they are in elementary, middle and high schools. “Everybody [parents and educators] need 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?”
Tukel also noted that many universities now have pre-college STEM programs that focus on K-12 education during the summer months.
“We bring these little kids here and have them go into the labs and learn how to use the machines and the 3D printers,” she said. “The programs we’re running help bring the excitement and show them what they can become when they graduate from high school. All these places are great options for them.”
“So, I think there is an attempt to reach out to students at a younger age,” Tukel said.
Data have shown that while there is “really no significant difference” between boys and girls in the areas of reading, math and sciences, the latter tend to be “stronger in terms of reading,” Tukel said.
So, researchers are left questioning “whether these strengths are the reason where they feel more comfortable going into different areas, and there is not as much representation of women, although at the main understanding level we are all the same,” she said.
That’s where role models come in, panelists 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 talk 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,” Pophristic 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.”
“The culture is still rooted in male reference points – everything is built based on decades of male leadership and male dominance. And we’re trying to somehow fit into that and it doesn’t work well,” she added.
“I think it comes down to the available role models and what kids play with when they’re little. We’ll see more boys playing with cars and mechanical things, and more girls playing with like dolls. Right then, what are these children exposed to?” she asked.
And, post-pandemic, Prophistic said she believes the younger generation is more open to the notion of a career built on purpose and meaning.
“I think this is the right time for us as a society to have this conversation. 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.
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“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 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.”
Both Tukel and Pophristic said counselors could play an important role.
“Their job is huge in terms of explaining these career paths and the types of job,” Tukel said. “The areas are changing so significantly with all these new technology-embedded fields …Counselors need to be aware of what potential is out there – which is significantly different than maybe even 10 years ago. I think women will be in more technical areas.”
Pophristic agreed, saying, “I think we should be doing more with guidance counselors.”
She went on to note, “With the advancement of AI and machine learning, careers will change significantly, and machines will take over some complex work. But there will be an increased role for human, uniquely human work, which is more on the creativity side.”
“So, what is on us in STEM is to figure out how to integrate creativity with sciences … and prepare our students for these careers that don’t yet exist,” she said.