How can we get more women into STEM careers?

By Connie Chow

Worldwide, merit alone has not led to gender equity in appointments in public office, business and certainly not tenure in science and engineering. Disappointingly, a recent report suggests that it will take another 40 years before 50% of tenured positions in STEM in the United States will be occupied by women. Supply and attrition are significant contributors. The degree to which personal choice, institutional practice, and societal norms are involved is disputable.

“Quota” is often a dirty word in the United States. And that puts us behind many countries, such as Rwanda, Namibia and Bangladesh – countries that have used this temporary measure to increase the number of women officials at the highest levels of government. While India still has fewer than 10% women in parliament (because of continuous opposition to legislation to reserve seats for women in the lower house), Dr. Pam Rajput of Punjab University has been instrumental in putting over a million women in local office (which does have a 33% quota), by methodically and doggedly training urban and rural women, uneducated and with higher degrees, in the last 30 years. This has resulted in significant changes in policies around education and public health, significantly improving not only the lives of girls and women, but entire communities. While a quota system (hopefully voluntarily implemented by institutions) may accelerate change for women and girls in STEM, it will not be enough.

Current efforts to broaden participation in STEM for girls and women and those from underrepresented groups at all levels, from outreach programs for K-12, research opportunities and scholarships for university students, mentoring programs for graduate students and initiatives like ADVANCE, are essential but not sufficiently far-reaching. A practical tool increasingly used by government, businesses and academia in the EU and other countries is called a gender audit, or gender sensitive budgeting.

Connie Chow

Instead of just having a numerical target for equity, this tool encourages thoughtful review and discussion of recruitment and hiring practices, workplace or program policies, and other elements that can hinder or promote equity. Moreover, gender auditing asks for the collection of gender-disaggregated data (as well as race, class or other factors as are relevant), that helps set baseline data, identify gaps, monitor progress and test effectiveness of program changes. Recommendations are not just hortatory. Review and reallocation of the budget ensures that proper resources are provided to go the extra mile in implementing necessary policies and slowly reverse any discriminatory practices, intended or otherwise. Importantly, it is an educational tool that opens the eyes of individuals, departmental units and institutions so that women and underrepresented groups don’t carry the full burden of advocating for themselves.

And this is why participation of gender-sensitive women and men in all forms of decision-making becomes important if we are to transform the ivory tower, especially for STEM. When a more diverse group of people are committed AND have the ability to direct resources to creating girl- and women-friendly policies in our society, which are at the end family-, human- and earth-friendly policies, then more people in turn can make decisions about who can do science, what engineering research is legitimate, what are appropriate applications of science, technology and engineering. Then and only then can we escape the shackles of business as usual and incremental change. Let’s not let the wait be any longer.



Connie Chow is the executive director of  Science Club for Girls , a MA-based nonprofit that increases confidence and literacy in STEM in girls from K-12 grades. Dr. Chow received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and was a member of the biology department at Simmons College. Dr. Chow is a women’s rights advocate and expert on international human rights. She is a member of the Back Bay Chorale.