For women in STEM, hands-on involvement trumps monetary compensation

Women should be encouraged from a younger age to pursue STEM degrees

There is no doubt that the fields of science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) are male-dominated.

For women, this spells opportunity. It also necessitates a nationwide or even global effort to encourage women to pursue STEM majors. 

Currently, the primary encouragement for women to pursue STEM careers is through monetary incentives. The lack of change in the proportion of women who actually follow through with STEM careers, however, suggests the need for a different approach.

Although the disparity is low between men and women for biological and social sciences, many other careers in the field of science and engineering have extremely low percentages of women, particularly computer science, mathematics and worst of all, engineering. 

According to the National Science Foundation, women comprised just a mere 14.9 percent of the total engineering workforce in 2013 and only 7.9 percent of the mechanical engineering workforce specifically.

Nearly half of all individuals in the college-educated workforce are women, yet less than a third of the science and engineering workforce is female.

Due to the astonishing lack of women in the field, there are a multitude of job opportunities in this day and age for women. The challenge, though, lies first in exposure.

There are incentives for women to join careers in STEM. However, many of these are purely financial and unbeknownst to young women until they apply for college. 

Many universities across the nation offer scholarships exclusively for women pursuing math, science or engineering. There are also several other independent scholarships offered to women pursuing careers in STEM.


However, monetary incentives have no way of being effective encouragement when girls have spent their whole lives either being discouraged or unexposed to fields in STEM.

The issue in STEM communities where women are underrepresented lies primarily in the lack of education regarding careers in scientific fields early on.

“What we’ve noticed is that students of color, especially girls, have a certain preconceived notion about what a scientist is, but we’re letting them know that it’s so broad, and you as a young person or coming from the community that you come from, have something to add to the field,” Laila Sarah, the assistant director for Capacity Building for the CompuGirls program at ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, said. 

The Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology works with people in industries such as Intel and State Farm to give exposure to students from a young age about what it means to have a career in STEM.

The Center utilizes this approach for programs such as CompuPower and CompuGirls, which bring together students at the middle and high school level to work on STEM-related projects. 

“What they do is they utilize technology and they tie it in to issues that they care about,” Sarah said. “We would call them ‘techno-social change agents.’” 

An example of this is in the CompuPower program offered by The Center. 

“One of the things we have them do is create podcasts, and the subject of their podcast can be something in their community, so they not only learn the technology, but they also learn the organizational skills it takes to create a comprehensive story and to create knowledge and awareness,” Sarah said.

Furthermore, there is widespread advocacy for turning STEM into STEAM, with the incorporation of art. Numerous case studies have been conducted in support of the interdisciplinary approach to scientific careers, and initiatives are already being taken.

“In our Library CompuGirls program, we have what’s called as ‘expressive circuitry,’ so girls actually build circuits, but it’s artwork. They might build a flower that lights up in the middle, for example,” Sarah said. “The process is really not just the endgame, it’s really teaching them the non-cognitive skills about troubleshooting, problem-solving, and working together.”

In the future, The Center plans on increased university as well as student involvement.

The hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to STEM is likely the most effective way to reduce the disparity in the fields of science and have longer-lasting impacts than financial incentives do. As these girls enter the collegiate level, they come away from the programs with better communication skills and a passion for science.

By working to introduce elements of diversity and creativity to the field, advancement is provided not only for the individual, but also to the entire field.


Reach the columnist at kalbal@asu.edu or follow @karish2021on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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