The Status of Women in Higher Education and STEM Careers

In today’s world, many industries are still very male-dominated. As a professional scuba diver in India, I’ve often been the only as the female professional in otherwise all-male settings. And while scuba diving is still a relatively new trend in India, my experience is far from unique. From fields such as investing banking to today’s top money making STEM professions, the ratio of women in the workplace, and women rising to the “top” is less than ideal.

Women in STEMWe are all familiar with the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Often, women are discouraged from following careers in STEM fields due to the notion that doing so would be “unfeminine”. In fact, even though women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, there are only about 29% of women in the science and engineering workforce. In fields such a higher education as well, where people often assume gender-neutrality and equality, women only hold 31 percent of full professors at postsecondary institutions. In fact, the higher one goes in the educational system, the fewer women are present. The reason cited for this is the Myth of the Pipeline, which states that too few women hold advanced degrees necessary to qualify them for leadership positions. Statistics show that this however, is very untrue. On the contrary, the pipeline is preparing women for leadership positions at a faster rate than it is preparing men. Since 2006, women have earned more than half of all doctoral degrees granted, and about half of all master’s degrees awarded since 1991!

The few women that do move forward possibly unintentional yet obvious discrimination. In an article in the Huffington Post, Niamey Wilson, a breast cancer surgeon writes about her experience as a surgeon in what is considered a man’s career. She recalls an incident when she was studying, “As a third year resident, having helped complete a colon operation with my attending surgeon, I went to check on our patient post-operatively. He was on the phone, but when I entered the room, he said, “Hang on, the aide just came in to give me my newspaper.” Sadly, much like Wilson, women seen in a hospital in scrubs are most often assumed to be nurses and while there isn’t anything wrong with being a nurse, it’s the discrepancy in thinking that is the real issue. Wilson states, “On the other hand, male medical students need only don scrubs, and — BAM — they look like surgeons. During rounds, some patients would preferentially direct their gaze and answers to the male medical students, even though I was the chief resident leading the group, asking questions and directing care (and nearly a decade older than the students).”

The questions remains, what can be done about this uneven representation? Turns out, there is a silver lining. According to an article in Fast Company, there are three STEM and educational fields in which women are actually dominating. These are statistics, healthcare and botany. FC asked the leaders in these areas to elaborate on why this was so, and what pointers they had for other male-dominated industries looking to equalize the ratios.

Katherine Ryder, founder of Maven a digital clinic for women previously worked in a male-dominated venture capital firm. Her experience helped her create a company that not only caters to the needs of women, but also empowers female healthcare providers who aren’t physicians. Ryder found that even though women represent nearly 80% of the health care workforce in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet women’s participation in leadership positions in health care is extremely low. “At Maven, we connected these dots, recognizing that these non-physician providers, who were disproportionately women, were underutilized in telemedicine,” says Ryder. Though Maven has doctors, 95% of its practitioners are female nurse practitioners, midwives, physical therapists, nutritionists, lactation consultants, doulas, and mental health specialists. Several studies have shown that female patients are more satisfied with a woman practitioner. Ryder is using this opportunity to encourage more women to utilize their skills and share their expertise in a time when healthcare is on the rise.

Kay Havens, the Medard and Elizabeth Welch director of plant science and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden highlights the importance of mentors as a strong career driving force. “Without strong mentorship, it can be difficult for anyone to navigate any career but particularly one in the sciences, which are often dominated by men,” Havens notes. Carolyn Everson, VP of global marketing solutions at the multi-million dollar Facebook seconds this notion “aspiring female executives should surround themselves with people they can count on, while simultaneously being someone that others can rely on.” With these ideas in mind, Havens teamed up with her mentor, Peggy Olwell, the plant conservation program manager at the Bureau of Land Management to create a government/NGO partnership, Conservation Land Management fellowship. This trains budding botanists while providing strong female leadership. Models like this have been known to reduce gender biases in male-dominated industries.

With these sorts of initiatives, we hope to see the gender gap greatly reduced within the workplaces. Even though these are seemingly small steps to start with, even the slightest change is sure to help induce a gender balance in favor of women within STEM and educational fields.



AkshataAkshata has a passion for traveling and exploring the world. She in very interested in entrepreneurship and sustainability in everyday life. Being a foodie, she spends a good amount of time cooking up concoctions in her kitchen, recording her recipes and travel adventures on her blog, With Love From Akshata.