Although STEM (science, technology, engineering
and mathematics) is touted as the wave of the future for practical fields of study that can launch lucrative careers
, it appears that women are not taking full advantage of the STEM opportunities presented at community colleges today. The growing gap is a concern for employers who wonder if there will be enough skilled workers
to fill their positions in the future. Why are women appearing to shy away from STEM degree programs? There could be many reasons for the drop, but the primary focus of educators and employers is to help women overcome the challenges of STEM studies in order to produce a qualified, competitive workforce for the 21st
A Downward Trend
Recent data suggests that the number of women pursuing fields of study in STEM subjects appears to be waning rather than gaining speed. According to a report at the Community College Times
, women earned 34 percent of two-year STEM degrees in 1997. By 2007, that number had dropped to just 28 percent. In addition, even though women make up at least half of the total workforce today, only one in four STEM jobs are currently held by a woman.
“There has been a 25-percent drop in the proportion of STEM degrees awarded to women at the community college level in this period,” Cynthia Costello, author of a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told the Community College Times.
According to a report at the Association of American Colleges and Universities
, a college education still remains the brightest path to a future of mobility and economic security. The STEM fields offer a particularly lucrative path, with higher than average salaries and projected job growth. Many of these fields can be entered with just a two-year degree at the local community college, offering by far the best value for the tuition dollar.
So why aren’t women taking full advantage of these fields at the community college level? While theories have been circulating for some time, the recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has managed to weed out some of the facts from the fiction, and it provides recommendations to help community colleges encourage women to pursue fields that will offer them the greatest growth potential in the long run.
According to a report at WCVB TV
, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the rate of growth in STEM occupations will continue to outpace most other fields in the coming years. The agency estimates that STEM occupations could grow at twice the rate of other jobs in the United States. Salaries in STEM fields are also highly competitive, with many of these occupations paying much more than other jobs requiring similar education and training.
Discrepancies in average salaries between men and women also tend to be less in STEM occupations than in other jobs. The Association of American Colleges and Universities report cites statistics from a study conducted by the American Association of University Women that found one year out of college, women architects and engineers earned slightly more than their male counterparts. Within 10 years after graduation, women’s salaries had dropped to just 93 percent of what their male co-workers earned; however, that salary gap is much lower than what is seen in many other occupations today. Women working in these industries also continued to earn significantly more than those working in female-dominated industries like education
STEM occupations provide sufficient salary ranges to support a family, which could bring many women out of the grip of poverty. This is particularly significant for women who are minorities
, since these demographics tend to struggle the most with poverty-related issues. Single mothers
can also use two-year STEM degree programs to bring their families to a reasonable income level that will provide their children with more opportunities for their futures.
“As the nation works to improve access to community college credentials, it is critical that women and people of color have equal access to high quality degrees, such as those in STEM fields, that lead to family-sustaining wages,” Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told the Community College Times. “A number of exciting programs around the country are working to break those gender and race divides, and their techniques can serve as a model for other community colleges that want to equalize enrollment in STEM programs.”
Advantages of STEM Not Fully Realized
Despite the many advantages to STEM training, community colleges just aren’t bringing a significant number of female graduates into these occupations. Common theories for the low numbers have proven untrue, such as women are unable to perform as well in math classes and female students simply don’t have the interest in STEM fields of study. According to WCVB TV, some accurate reasons why women don’t pursue STEM degrees might include:
- A lack of female role models in STEM fields
- Instructional methods in STEM courses are not geared toward female students
- Care-giving roles at home restrict the time and attention women can give to degree programs
Fortunately, there are ways community colleges can encourage more women to get involved in STEM degree programs. The report at the Association of American Colleges and Universities suggests that colleges put forth a greater effort to recruit female STEM students and then provide them with services and financial aid
that will help them meet their goals. In addition, schools need to address the stereotypes associated with women in STEM occupations, help them make more accurate assessments of their math and science abilities, and broaden the scope of introductory STEM coursework so women can see the applicable benefits of STEM degrees and take advantage of the many opportunities available in this area.