Fewer Millennial Women in STEM?

By: Nancy Ordman

Fewer millennial than Generation X  women work in STEM fields.

Several surprising and disturbing trends revealed in a recent Population Reference Bureau report indicate that young women in the United States no longer experience the improvements in well-being that baby-boom generation women experienced. This decline is affecting millennial participation in STEM-oriented careers:  one in five millennial women has a STEM job, compared to one in four Generation Xers.

The report, “Losing Ground: Young Women’s Well-Being across Generations in the United States,” postulates that structural and societal changes are feeding the decline. Economic security, along with wages, is stagnating. More millennial women than Generation X (17 percent versus 12 percent) live in poverty. The suicide rate is rising. Incarceration rates are exploding.

On the bright side, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees has increased and the gender gap in earnings is closing. However, women have to offer a higher level of education than do men to earn the same salaries for the same job. Previous gains in STEM careers, especially in computer-related occupations, have been wiped out, despite concerted efforts by many groups to encourage young women to opt for science and technical careers. Women’s work is still heavily concentrated in lower-wage service occupations, considerably lowering expectations for advancement and increased income.

“We have been pushed back, there’s no question,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “Younger women are really feeling the effects of ... a 30-year march to dismantle government agencies, to dismantle government protections, all in the name of free markets.” The current atmosphere in Washington does not promise to reverse these changes.

The study’s authors do not offer a magic formula to reverse the decline in well-being in general and STEM participation in particular. Providing more training could help, but the real impediments are social and cultural norms that view men as much smarter than women. Government intervention can jump-start changes that society is slow to evolve on its own, for example, the Federal government’s equal opportunity laws and rules. These seeds of change do not always take root, especially if the support—government rules, in this example—is withdrawn.

Enlisting local businesses and industries in developing and providing training is one promising model. In Seattle, a federally-funded, locally-managed apprenticeship program, Apprenti, focuses on developing a pipeline of highly-qualified candidates for industrial apprenticeships. The candidates complete two to five months of on-the-job training, followed by a year’s apprenticeship. Apprenti’s stated purpose is to serve underrepresented groups. The pipeline model will be a key to success: by partnering with industries, identifying real staffing needs, and producing the employees each industry needs, Apprenti can ensure demand for their end products—excellent employees.

Retaining highly-skilled technical workers is just as important as hiring them in the first place. Engineering is still a male-dominated culture; women still endure workplace sexism, however subtle it might be. Sexism ranges from lower starting salaries than men get for the same position to working on less-interesting aspects of a project to outright harassment on the job. Lack of female mentors and colleagues who can help each other cope with, and try to change, engineering culture, creates a situation where progress happens very slowly.

In addition to fostering changes in STEM culture, employers can take two additional steps to encourage women to pick and stick with STEM careers. First, eliminate the gender differences in salary; provide equal pay for equal work. Second, support working families. Provide realistic family leave policies for mothers and fathers and subsidized day care, on-site or off.

A handful of recent articles offer an optimistic take on the future of women in STEM. Cornell researchers discovered that “green” fields—environmental science and sustainability—attract a more gender-balanced cohort. The researchers suggest that universities frame fields differently to appeal to different audiences. Another hopeful sign: women constituted 49.5 percent of the Fall 2016 freshman class at MIT, a result of the Institute’s multi-pronged effort to enroll more females. Woman-led tech start-ups hire more female employees—not a surprising finding—but women still have to push harder than men to establish their businesses.

Increasing millennial women’s participation in STEM careers will, quite probably, require continued pressure on multiple societal structures—education, government, business and industry—to recover lost momentum and ensure a more optimistic future for millennial women.