How to grow interest in STEM and create women and minority leaders.
There is a grave disconnect in the US labor force that will adversely impact the future of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries. According to the US Census Bureau, men make up slightly over half of the US workforce—52%—yet they comprise 73% of all STEM workers.
Many factors come into play, but one of the biggest culprits comes down to cultural expectations. For decades, women, minorities, members of the LGBQT+ community, economically disadvantaged students and other underrepresented sectors of society received the message that STEM was not for people like them. Schools were also to blame as they propagated this bias—whether unconsciously or overtly—and all the while STEM was not pushed strongly as a possible line of study for women, minorities and underrepresented groups.
The curriculum and exercises tended to use examples and lessons that were geared mostly towards men. Women entering these more male-dominated places had to learn new ways of communicating to be effective. When I entered engineering, it happened to me, too. I had to learn how to communicate inside a masculine culture in ways that I was not prepared for. I also saw a need for more diversity overall.
We have begun making changes, but, as the saying states, there are miles to go before we can rest. We need to teach young women and all other underrepresented groups how to communicate effectively in STEM environments to help even the playing field. In the long run, balancing and diversifying the STEM fields themselves will create cultures that are more welcoming to young women and underrepresented minorities.
The media also shares in this blame. There is a dearth of female, LGBQT+ and minority role models in the way STEM leaders are portrayed. The media should not only offer a more positive message, but far more role models need to be shown to young women, girls and underrepresented minorities. By constantly showing and discussing these stereotypes, young students can develop further insecurities. For a healthy next generation of STEM specialists, the current generation needs to experience normalcy and confidence in STEM, with fewer gender stereotypes attached.
Challenges and What can be Done About Them
The US Census Bureau also shows that “women are still vastly underrepresented in the STEM workforce. However, women have made gains—from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019.” This number hopefully will increase as society addresses the major factors contributing to these gaps: gender stereotypes, imposter syndrome, male-dominated cultures, fewer role-models, and a lack of confidence girls (and underrepresented minorities) develop in their own leadership abilities.
So, what can be done about attracting more women, girls, members of the LGBQT+ community, and underrepresented minorities to STEM?
- Find women and hire them! Make sure they have resources and support once they join your team. Let college women and schoolgirls know that they have a future in these industries.
- If girls seem hesitant to enter STEM, find ways to get them positive mentoring, whether as a parent, in school or in community.
- Start in elementary and middle school: When girls and minorities feel more confident and motivated to pursue STEM at a younger age, their transition to college and career-based STEM programs will be smoother.
- Don’t over-focus on the gap. It’s important for parents—and teachers—to foster positive messages by telling their daughters that they are smart and capable.
I have experienced these industry challenges as a female mechanical engineer, and I want to help prepare young women and members of underrepresented sectors for STEM fields. We need more women in STEM, more mentors and role models. We need to show the next generation they can push forward and accomplish their science, technology, engineering, or mathematics goals without facing discrimination, or anxiety along the way.
Seeing more women and minorities in the field will be a source of inspiration. The key is to foster their drive with mentoring and the opportunity to follow that dream.
About Caitlin Kalinowski
Caitlin Kalinowski earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University in 2007, where she is a guest lecturer at Stanford’s School of Engineering and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Currently, Caitlin is Hardware Director for Facebook Reality Labs’ Oculus VR products— including 2020’s Oculus Quest 2, Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, and Oculus Rift. Previously she was a technical lead for Mac Pro and MacBook Air products and was part of the original unibody MacBook Pro team. Caitlin has also been instrumental in her support for the arts in California and her work blazing paths to encourage girls to enter STEM. For more information visit https://caitlinkalinowski.com/