STEM Workforce: Challenges and Solutions

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Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are becoming more and more prominent fields in the current societal environment. When discussing STEM innovations and advancements, the United States ranks highly in its participation in comparison to other countries, and because of its abundant activity in such fields, the number of workers needed every year to sustain the high demand is exponentially growing.

As of 2016, over one million people make up the number of STEM workers in the United States alone (Department For Professional Employees), a number that is expected to grow yet again as the years pass.

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The United States and many other STEM-driven countries have taken steps in the past to help alleviate this shortage of STEM workers; for example, the United States government under the Obama administration invested heavily in improving STEM education and increased both the number of STEM teachers and STEM graduates (“STEM for all”).

On the other hand, large companies and corporations have increased the percentage of foreign-born STEM workers, which since the 1990s has doubled (where?). However, even with the relief provided by such solutions, larger quantities of workers are still needed. One suggested solution to meet the required amount of workers needed is the closing of the gender gap in STEM workers. As of 2015, men made up 76% of the STEM workplace, while women made up less than 24% of those who were employed (citation). According to the research performed by Ellis et al., “if women persisted in STEM at the same rate as men… the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%” (Ellis et al. 1 ).

This would enable the United States to keep up with its ever-growing demand for capable and certified workers. In order to close the gender gap however, it is essential to find factors that are capable of both increasing the number of women who enter the STEM pipeline as well as those who persist in it. The STEM pipeline is the educational steps students take with the final goal of entering the workplace with relevance in the STEM fields.

Many different influencing factors can cause young women to further pursue a STEM career as well as persist throughout the process. Relationships and societal issues, such as romances or gender stereotypes, can have a great influence on young students, while at the same time many other factors, such as independently led STEM programs, have been proven to help. However, female STEM teachers are the most effective way to positively impact and increase the number of female students in the STEM pipeline.

Causes of the Gender Gap

Arguably one of the most relevant factors that increase the gap between male and female participation in STEM is a woman’s anticipation of working and learning in a stereotypically male environment. Young women undergoing college and high school education with aspirations of working in STEM-related fields will experience firsthand many stereotypes as well as gender biases. This is one of the many reasons which cause women to anticipate less welcoming and pleasant environments in STEM work fields, and may even reduce their motivation to continue pursuing and persisting their chosen path for their STEM goals. “

An especially powerful stereotype-activating cue is the underrepresentation of one’s group” and having a sense of belonging in work is extremely important for, the lack of representation and stereotypes discourage women to participate in these environments (Schuster et al. 41) When a young woman enters a scenario where there is a lack of representation and heavy stereotyping, their actions become influenced and their behavior changes. These behavioral changes occur because the student’s wish not to confirm the different stereotype about their gender.

Students may also experience “anticipated effect” in which even if they had not yet even experienced these scenarios, they still demonstrate behavioral changes because they would previously anticipate an unwelcoming environment. Research conducted by Schuster and his colleagues demonstrates how stereotyping and anticipated effect young women have and will experience during certain situations discourage them from entering STEM fields as well as persist in them.

Another similar research performed by Ellis et al. focuses specifically on female university freshman taking Calculus One; a course which is typically associated as a college bottleneck course for the STEM pipeline. This research demonstrated how the specific bottleneck course had helped in the creation of the gap early on between the participation of men and women and was directly associated with the disparity in gender participation. In order to find out how the lack of mathematical confidence influences young woman to give up on STEM jobs, Ellis and his colleagues used an anonymous nationwide survey and asked randomly chosen universities.

Throughout the semester in which the freshman Calculus classes took place, the researchers asked the participants their intentions of continuing the course and what different factors made them persist in the class as well as why they might have considered giving up. The results concluded that young women started out the Calculus courses with less confidence that the male participants, which helped prove that the issue of lack of confidence due to gender could be traced to primary and secondary education.

Due to the substantial gap between the confidence the women had and the confidence that men had at the beginning of the year, it was discovered that young women were 1.5 times more likely to drop out from the Calculus 1 or decide to not pursue it the following year. Even after studying and analyzing different factors affecting students, the researchers concluded that gender was one of the most significant factors in the persistence of the students throughout the course. Even though the research only took a look at Calculus classes for freshman, or first-year students, in college, the research was also enough to determine that the lack of confidence was another major factor influencing young women to not persist.

An unwelcoming environment, stereotypes, and lower confidence are not the only factors that affect the number of young women who both enter and persist in the STEM pipeline. Analyzing the effects that a person’s race and gender has had on them also demonstrates how another issue that may impact them. In a research paper performed by Warren et al., it was found that when comparing images of women who work in and out of STEM, race and gender were almost equally prominent factors when forming opinions. In their study, the research was divided into two portions.

In the first test, 280 participants of a mixed random sample were asked to sort 36 pictures based on how favorable they appeared, career-wise, organizational, and creativity. The pictures showed a mixed group of women who worked in STEM-related jobs. The results of the first survey showed that the race and gender of the participants themselves affected how they then perceived and labeled the different pictures.

The second group of participants had similar pictures, however, the women shown were not STEM workers. In a similar manner, they were asked to sort the pictures based on different assumed factors. The results showed that African-American women, in comparison to Caucasian women, analyzed and favored the STEM images more. The results also showed that women favored the STEM images of Caucasians more than men. Overall the results confirmed that “cultural stereotypes affect people’s perceptions of women in the STEM fields.”(Warren et al. 63)

Impact of Gender Stereotypes

Tang Wee Teo performed a similar study as Warren, however this time there was a focus on a Hispanic, female STEM teacher. The accounts are based on struggles of this specific teacher and related experiences that she and a close group of minority students and peers underwent throughout her journey of becoming a professor at a university.

This first account of her endeavor throughout her life focus heavily on the struggles of her being accepted into the STEM community as well as being respected for her contributions in research, especially because despite the fact that she had earned a doctoral degree in chemistry and had an active teaching job in a STEM school, she was still perceiving judgment from peers.

As a double minority, the researcher came to the conclusion that gender and race marginalized her and constantly kept her and other minorities students form being active contributors to the STEM community. The article also brings its focus on how she and other minority students formed a close-knitted community themselves in the school. The author’s main purpose, however, was to show the tension in the STEM pipeline with minorities and overall social inclusion. The author also concluded that forming different groups can encourage other minority students to pursue STEM education.

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STEM Workforce: Challenges and Solutions. (2019, Apr 12). Retrieved from