By: Katelyn Six, Section Editor for Bloc[k] Beat (email@example.com)
On September 26, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama acknowledged the veracity that “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for everyone. We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.” This is more than merely wishful thinking – it is a call to action, urging us all to stop, look and listen to the pressing problem affecting our workforce, our education system, our economy, and, most importantly, our students.
With groundbreaking technological and scientific advancements abounding at every turn – electric cars like Tesla, wearable computing devices like Google Glass, Ultra HD TV, and revolutionizing 3D printers – it is hardly surprising that the future success of the nation and the world rests on the shoulders of those in the STEM fields.
A quick glance at data collected last fall by the University of Oregon’s Office of Institutional Research speaks volumes about the disparity between men and women in science, technology, engineering, and math arenas. The numbers speak for themselves: of undergraduates majoring in mathematics, 34.2 percent are female, while 42.8 percent of chemistry majors are. When it comes to physics majors, women comprise 20.9 percent, while the number of female computer science undergrads hit a disturbingly low 14.1 percent.
As students leave the comfort of four year universities, they face a harsh reality: landing their first job. The Department of Commerce estimates that STEM job openings will increase 17% by 2018, which is a faster rate than most other careers. Not only are these jobs more plentiful, but they also often have higher entry-level pay and higher earning potential in the long run. Increasingly, qualified and educated individuals in STEM positions are becoming more in demand than ever before.
While many people are shocked to see such scarcity of women in STEM fields, most of them do not know why these numbers are so despairingly low. The first step toward evening out this obvious imbalance is recognizing the challenges that women encounter when pursuing a career in one of these fields.With the incentive of growing job openings in science, technology, engineering, and math, why are there still so few women in STEM fields? One of the challenges unique to female students is the deficiency of female mentors for young scientists and engineers after which they can model their own career paths and choices. Moreover, the barrier blocking women from pursing STEM careers starts building at a young age, where girls are often subtly nudged away from math and science because “that’s for boys.” This makes it progressively difficult to break down that wall as girls enter higher education institutions…because, by then, it is often too late.
We know the challenges females often face when chasing a profession in science and technology, but why is it such a big deal that STEM careers are still pursued primarily by men? When looking at the overall picture, it is brutally clear that an absence of women in influential fields like these puts everyone, not just women, at a disadvantage economically. Karen Purcell, who studied electrical engineering despite objections from family and puzzled looks from male friends, authored the book, Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. She asserts that “in very practical terms, the shortage of women leads to problems like mistakes in product design.” For example, when automotive engineers designed the first airbags, they created them to fit the body dimensions of the people who worked on the design team. The problem? The team was all males. “So when the airbags deployed in car accidents, people with smaller body sizes – women and children – were at risk of injury,” Purcell explains, adding that having more women around “helps companies design products that will work for all their customers, not just the male half.” As our TVs become smarter and our daily lives become more advanced by technology, having a woman’s voice, not just a man’s, offers greater understanding and more well-rounded perspectives that might just save lives.
Ultimately, not only must we stop in our tracks and acknowledge this problem, but we have to step in and take the necessary actions to change the reality that few women major in STEM fields. And now is the time, as national programs are being implemented to provide the support, encouragement, and resources necessary to even out the STEM playing field and make way for a brighter, smarter future.
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