Women making gains in STEM

Spring ’21 FAMU Graduates in Premedical & Medical Scholars Programs. Photo courtesy of @famu_cst on Instagram

The science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] fields are dominated by men, making it hard for women to break through in these disciplines, especially in positions of leadership. Nonetheless, we’re starting to break that barrier.  

According to The Census, women jumped from 8% of STEM workers in 1970 to 27% in 2019. Men made up 52% of all workers in the United States but 73% of all STEM workers.

Despite years of progress and continuous proof that women are capable of positions in STEM fields, there is still a preconceived notion that certain careers are for men.

Gender roles and stereotypes tend to shape people’s perception about what men and women should do in households and even careers. 

Maxine Jones, director of the women’s studies program at Florida State University, believes it is necessary for students to see representations of themselves in all fields.

“Male students need to know that they can become nurses and female students need to know that they can be doctors and researchers,” Jones said. “It is difficult to break deep rooted gender-based generational and cultural traditions and biases of what women can do and be.”

Research from the University of Houston shows that “stereotypes of girls having lower interest in computer science and engineering than boys are formed as early as six and cause gender disparities in motivation for computer science and novel activities.”

Women and minorities as a whole experience a huge disparity in STEM fields and the lack of representation can continue that cycle. When more women and women of color progress in these areas, there can be an influx of ideas and fresh perspectives. 

The amount of female faculty and professors in many STEM programs can sometimes contrast with the high number of female students enrolled in them. At FAMU,  specifically, there is a higher number of women in many fields such as certain majors in STEM. In 2019, 82% of graduates from the biology program were women.

Miracle Kennerly, a chemistry student at FAMU, says that FAMU and other schools would benefit from more Black women as STEM professors. Kennerly has had only two female STEM professors but says that their warm nature is necessary for classrooms.

“Hire quality professors who are Black women, women who are going to inspire girls to use STEM to monopolize their career and break into new markets,” Kennerly said. “I learned that I could use chemistry to create natural hair care products. That’s why it’s my major. I saw a way to help my community through the things that were taught in high school from a Black woman.”

While disparities are still evident, progress is definitely being made. In 2018, FAMU launched the FAMU ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Initiative with the goal of improving the campus climate for women faculty in STEM, social, and behavioral science fields. The initiative offers mentorship and development opportunities for female faculty. 

Cynthia Hughes Harris, dean of FAMU’s School of Allied Health Sciences, believes there will be progress. 

“In general, there are more and more women entering STEM fields and it may take a while for them to rise to the top. However, as the number of women in STEM increases, I’m confident we will see more women in higher academic positions, including dean and beyond,” she said.

The rise in female STEM employees over time has increased but there is still a long way to go. With time, more women will reach higher positions in STEM and pave the way for others. It’s apparent that more institutions can mutually benefit when supporting women in STEM fields; they just need to be given the chance.