WOMEN IN STEM PROFESSIONS

April 18, 2016


OK, I know you are aware of the acronym—STEM, but let’s refresh.

  • S—Science
  • T—Technology
  • E—Engineering
  • M–Mathematics

Now that that’s over with.  The development of the microchip and integrated circuitry gave rise to our digital age.  It seems that the integrated circuit was destined to be invented. Two separate inventors, unaware of each other’s activities, invented almost identical integrated circuits or ICs at nearly the same time.

Jack Kilby, an engineer with a background in ceramic-based silk screen circuit boards and transistor-based hearing aids, started working for Texas Instruments in 1958. Mr. Kilby holds patents on over sixty inventions and is well known as the inventor of the portable calculator (1967). In 1970 he was awarded the National Medal of Science.  A year earlier, research engineer Robert Noyce co-founded the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation.  Mr. Noyce, with sixteen patents to his name, also founded Intel, the company responsible for the invention of the microprocessor, in 1968.  From 1958 to 1959, both electrical engineers were working on an answer to the same dilemma: how to make more from less.

In 1961 the first commercially available integrated circuits came from the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation. All computers at that time were made using chips instead of the individual transistors and their accompanying parts. Texas Instruments first used the chips in Air Force computers and the Minuteman Missile in 1962. They later used chips to produce the first electronic portable calculators. The original IC had only one transistor, three resistors and one capacitor and was the size of an adult’s pinkie finger.  Today, an IC smaller than a penny can hold 125 million transistors.

For both men the invention of the integrated circuit stands historically as one of the most important innovations of mankind.  Almost all modern products use chip technology.  The invention of the chip ushered in the digital age and the age of STEM.

Over the past ten years, jobs in the STEM professions have grown three times faster than non-STEM jobs and are projected to grow seventeen percent (17%) through 2018 as compared to nine point eight percent (9.8%) for all other occupations.   This should indicate that there is room for everyone, not just men, not just white men, but women, African-American, Asians, Hispanics, etc and it will take all interested parties to fill the upcoming need for trained professionals. With this being the case, colleges and universalities across the United States have been working to attract more women into STEM professions.

The Girl Scouts of America published a study entitled “Generation STEM” involving a questionnaire asking what girls say about the STEM professions.  They found that teenage girls love STEM, with seventy-four percent (74%) of high school girls across the country being very interested in STEM-related professions.   This definitely runs counter to several negative stereotypes that persist about young ladies and their interest in scientific or mathematic pursuits.  Let’s now look at several facts.  The digital photograph below has several surprising conclusion.

STEM FACTS

Now, I would be remiss if I did not indicate several difficult aspects of women joining the scientific and engineering community.  There are challenges, as follows:

Challenge 1: Shortage of mentors for women in STEM fields.

Women tend to have a harder time finding female mentors in STEM occupations. A more experienced employee can show you the ropes and promote your accomplishments. This is important for anyone in any career. It is especially important for women in STEM, because they are often less likely than their male coworkers to promote themselves. As you can see above, many women fully qualified in their fields of study leave their professions due to pressures from other than ability.

Solution 1: If you can’t find a mentor in your organization, join a professional association.

Many associations like the Association for Women in Science, the Society of Women Engineers, and the Association for Women in Mathematics. All have networking and mentoring opportunities (both online and in person).

Challenge 2: Lack of acceptance from coworkers and supervisors.

If you work in a STEM field, you might work mainly or exclusively with men. You may find it difficult to be accepted as part of the group. There’s legal help if you face sexual harassment or discrimination in hiring and pay. It’s not always easy to know what to do about subtle or unintentional exclusion.  This really surprised me when I read it.  In the engineering teams I have been associated with, all lady members were treated with respect and as absolute equals.  Apparently, this is not always the case.

Solution 2: Work for a company with female-friendly policies and programs.

Many companies understand that it’s profitable to keep their talented female employees happy. They make special efforts to recruit women. They move them into leadership positions and offer flexible work or mentoring programs. Take time to research potential employers. Find out if they understand and want to reduce the challenges for women working in male-dominated occupations.

Challenge 3: Coping with gender differences in the workplace.

Let’s face it: men and women have different interaction styles. This plays itself out at work. If you’re a woman working mostly with men, your daily reality will be different than if you were in a female-dominated workplace.

Solution 3: Educate yourself.

Read up on gender differences in communication. Learn what to expect by talking to women in STEM fields who can share insights. Don’t wait to be asked before offering an opinion. Learn how to handle mistakes, blame, and guilt in a male-dominated workplace. Learn the art of saying no to unreasonable requests.

One problem that affects both men and women is preparedness relative to their high school years.  Our country is just not producing students for the rigors of the STEM professions.  They are simply not prepared to move into fields of study that will ultimately see them graduate with a four year degree and move into technology.   The chart below indicates some of the disturbing problems we have as a nation.

STEM Attraction Gap

  • Computer scientists are in high demand, but only a fraction of U.S. high schools offer advanced training on the subject—and that fraction is shrinking.
  • Of the more than 42,000 public and private high schools in the United States, only 2,100 high schools offered the Advanced Placement test in computer science last year, down 25 percent over the past five years, according to a recent report by Microsoft.
  • In schools where computer science is offered, it often does not count toward graduation. Only nine states—GeorgiaMissouriNew YorkNorth CarolinaOklahomaOregonRhode IslandTexas, and Virginia—allow computer science courses to satisfy core math or science requirements, according to the report.  (This is ridiculous!)
  • With an estimated 120,000 new jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree in computer science expected in the next year alone, and nearly 3.7 million jobs in STEM fields  currently sitting unfilled, computer science is the future.  This is, for the most part, due to students being unprepared right out of high school.  Before students can gain access to these courses, schools need teachers qualified to teach them. And districts with dwindling budgets and restrictive pay structures are competing with the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Facebook for talent.  One of the fundamental things we need to do is rethink the way that we recruit, retain, and compensate teachers to be able to deal with this changing labor market.
  • Over the past ten years, the percentage of ACT-tested students who said they were interested in majoring in engineering has dropped steadily from 7.6 percent to 4.9 percent.
  • Over the past five years, the percentage of ACT-tested students who said they were interested in majoring in computer and information science has dropped steadily from 4.5 percent to 2.9 percent.
  • Fewer than half (41 percent) of ACT-tested 2005 high school graduates achieved or exceeded the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in Math.
  • Only a quarter (26 percent) of ACT-tested 2005 high school graduates achieved or exceeded the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in Science.
  • In the graduating class of 2005, just slightly more than half (56%) of ACT-tested students reported taking the recommended core curriculum for college-bound students: four years of English and three years each of math (algebra and higher), science, and social studies.

What can be done?

  • Align rigorous, relevant academic standards—across the entire K–16 system—that prepare all students for further education and work.
  •  Establish a common understanding among secondary and postsecondary educators and business leaders of what students need to know to be ready for college and workplace success in scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical fields.
  •  Evaluate and improve the alignment of K–12 curriculum frameworks in English/language arts, mathematics, and science to ensure that the important college and work readiness skills in STEM fields are being introduced, reaffirmed, and mastered at the appropriate times.
  • Raise expectations that all students need strong skills in mathematics, science, and technology and that all students can meet rigorous college and workplace readiness standards.
  • Require all high school students to take at least three years of rigorous, specific college-preparatory course sequences in math and science.
  •  Recruit, train, mentor, motivate, reward, and retain highly qualified mathematics, science, and technology professionals to teach in middle school and beyond.
  • Ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn college readiness skills and has access to key courses in the STEM fields.
  •  Evaluate and improve the quality and intensity of all STEM core and advanced courses in high schools to ensure both greater focus on in-depth content and greater secondary-to-postsecondary curriculum alignment.
  • Sponsor model demonstration programs that develop and evaluate a variety of rigorous science, mathematics, and technology courses and end-of-course assessments for all students.
  •  Provide opportunities for dual enrollment, distance learning, and other enrichment activities that will expand opportunities for students to pursue advanced coursework in STEM areas.
  • Establish and support model programs that identify students with STEM academic potential and interests and expose them to STEM opportunities.
  • Include parents, teachers, and counselors in outreach programs that help them learn about STEM professions so they can encourage students to go into those fields.
  •  Initiate new and expand existing scholarship programs to attract more students into STEM fields.
  • Assess foundational science and math skills in elementary school to identify students who are falling behind while there is still time to intervene and strengthen their skills.
  • Identify and improve middle and high school student readiness for college and work using longitudinal student progress assessments that include science and mathematics components.
  •  Establish and support model programs that utilize end-of-course assessments for STEM courses to ensure rigor and effectiveness.
  •  Incorporate college and workforce readiness measures into federal and statewide school improvement systems.

If a rising tide floats all boats, improvements in high school science and mathematics will attract more ladies into the STEM professions.  Everyone benefits.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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