From the classroom to the boardroom, it’s important to support girls and women in STEM.
“While women now constitute almost 50 percent of the labor market, there’s still only 28 percent of us in STEM fields,” says Daphne Wotherspoon, president of Women in Technology (WIT), an organization that offers leadership development, technology education, networking, and mentoring opportunities for women in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas. “We also have this shortage of talent in the U.S. across a variety of STEM career paths. If we’re not really looking at 50 percent of the workforce to help fill that gap, we will always be behind.”
It’s essential to start early. “If we’re only talking to women who have already graduated from college about careers in STEM, we’re starting that way too late,” says Wotherspoon.
She says girls tend to lose interest in STEM during middle school. STEM projects like racing toy cars or rocket building is not always interesting to girls, which is why content should be gender neutral.
Next, girls need women role models in the field. WIT offers a Girls in Technology early intervention program which shows girls opportunities within tech, introduces them to women leaders, and has activities for them like hackathons and coding sessions. Organizations like WIT can be particularly effective when supported by parents, schools, higher education, and industry.
Another challenge is that over 40 percent of women leave their STEM careers after having children. Wotherspoon says overall 50 percent of women and 30 percent of men leave STEM jobs for reasons such as feeling devalued, a lack of advancement opportunities, and for women, a lack of female role models.
Women need support and opportunities for career growth. “There really shouldn’t be any reason why women are less represented, up and down the organizational hierarchies, as their male counterparts,” says Wotherspoon.
She’s hopeful more STEM employers will offer remote or part-time work for women who want to re-enter or stay in the field after having children.
She encourages more companies to place women in senior roles and create internal programs to support women. WIT’s free Mentor-Protégé program offers networking and training to women with five years industry experience.
Women deserve corporate board representation too. Currently women hold only 20 percent of board seats at Russell 3000 companies and 41 percent of those companies have one or no women directors.
Studies show companies with greater gender diversity obtain more patents, have higher intensity of research and development, and report higher levels of overall innovation.
WIT’s Leadership Foundry, a paid program, prepares women to join a corporate board.
Wotherspoon says women are slowly advancing. “If we can continue to trend upwards and see those 10 percent increases every year, I think that then that’s the kind of positive signal that will feed on itself,” she says.