Where Are All the Women?

The following article is presented by the Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC), to foster discussion and provoke thought. We welcome your comments and input.

By Adina D. Sterling

When I was nine years of age my father bought me my first chemistry set. At the time I thought it was a strange gift - I'd never expressed an interest in chemistry and could barely pronounce the names of the chemical compounds that came in the kit. However, my father's own enthusiasm for chemistry was infectious. As we opened the gift together he carefully explained each chemical compound and what it could do. That's when it hit me. I could use the chemical compounds to create something. From that moment, I was hooked.

I doubt my father pondered that in many ways I was an atypical chemistry student. It mattered little to him that most girls my age were playing with dolls, not mixing chemical compounds together. Yet like many children, because I had a role model with an enthusiasm for a scientific subject, new worlds were opened before me.

Thirty-seven years ago Congress passed the Women in Science and Technology Equal Opportunity Act, which declared it "the policy of the United States that men and women have equal opportunity in education, training, and employment in scientific and technical fields." In 2013 we have yet to achieve equality in STEM professions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS, 2009), women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of STEM professionals. In other words, half as many women are working in STEM jobs as we should expect if gender representation in STEM professions were to match participation in the overall workforce.

Today we are faced with a growing list of global issues, ranging from eradicating poverty, clean energy, climate change, and many others. Clearly, STEM professionals need to continue to lead in these arenas. However, to do so we need to have the best and most able minds from all backgrounds and walks of life focused on these issues. The purpose of this column is to shed light on the multifaceted nature of gender disparities in STEM professions. While the reasons given for gender disparity in STEM professions have been numerous, I am convinced that we as a community of professionals are just beginning to crack the surface in understanding this issue.

How do you explain lingering STEM inequality, and what solutions do you suggest?

Adina D. Sterling is an assistant professor of strategy at Washington University Olin Business School. Adina graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering in 2002 from The Ohio State University. Prior to returning to school to pursue a PhD from Emory University in 2006, she worked as a chemical engineer in research and development at Procter and Gamble for five years. She joined Olin Business School after receiving her PhD in 2011. Her research focuses on labor markets, strategic human resources, inequality and networks. You may contact her to share your perspective about gender-related issues in STEM fields at sterling@wustl.edu.


Janet B's picture

Sheer numbers and % don't tell the entire story. Midcareer women STEM professionals are also leaving the fields in droves. Honestly, we are tired of playing the game we cannot "win", nor be fulfilled by. So we are creating a "new game", where we hold the cards - creating new businesses where the rules are different. But STEM professionals need to understand the business side of STEM, and that is simply not a part of most curricula. We are hoping to change that!

Adina Sterling's picture

Thanks for your comment. It provoked a lot of thoughts, especially about how we may be partly to blame for some of the disparities that we see! Adina (author of the column)

Adina Sterling's picture

Great comments! Can you elaborate a bit more about "the business side of STEM" being important, and that this is not taught? What should engineers be taught during school or by their employers that they're not getting? Thanks! Adina (author of the column)

Janet B's picture

STEM professionals need the business skills to know how to turn their innovations into marketable (and profitable) commodities. A few examples: IP protection; traversing the "valley of death" with tech transfer; branding, both themselves and their innovations; funding start-ups; intrapreneurship vs entrepreneurship and advantages and disadvantages to each; Lens of the Market (tm), i.e., how to focus the innovation from differing viewpoints and markets in order to maximize its potential (or know that it's a great idea, but not currently marketable). Look forward to further discussions with you, Adina. Janet B