Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science Fields

Posted on April 5, 2014  Comments (2)

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.

There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections.

We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

The challenge of how to maximize the opportunities for those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math is important to all economies. There are difficulties in doing this and so continued focus on this area is good. My personal belief is we focus too much on the gender issue. Yes, we should reduce discrimination. I think we have done well but still have further to go.

Most of the suggested changes in how things should be done help women and also plenty of men that are turned off by the old way of doing things.

I also think we need to be careful in how we use data. Clamoring about discrepancies in a field with far more men (say physics) while not doing the same about a field with far more women (say psychology) is questionable to me. I don’t believe that any field that isn’t 50% male and 50% female is evidence that we need to fix the results so they are 50% each.

I believe we should provide everyone the opportunity to pursue the interests they have. They must perform to earn the right to continue. And we don’t want to waste potential with foolish barriers (for women, minorities or men). But if we do so and certain fields attract more women and others attract more men I think we can waste our effort by being too worried that certain fields are problematic.

If we are concerned it should be based on data and looking at the real world situation. In the coming decades my guess is women will exceed men in careers in many science disciplines (engineering still has fairly high male bias overall though some field, such as bio-engineering are already majority female graduates). It starts with education and women are already the majority of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering overall. And in many disciplines they dominate.

It has taken longer for higher degrees to switch to women majorities but I believe at the masters level in the USA women already are a majority of all science degrees. At PhD level, I don’t think it has flipped yet, but it will soon (if it hasn’t). It will take decades for this to bubble through the economy.

And history (even recent history) shows the numbers will not flow through directly. If 60% of science and engineering bachelors degrees are awarded to women this year. I believe 30 years from now less than 60% of the science and engineering professionals from the years graduates will be women (if I am wrong, great. Of course then we may have another problem to address, why are we wasting the talent of men would could also be contributing). Some of this decline will be to due to things we should fix. My guess is some of it is due to things we should not fix.

Many of steps we have taken have been good and we have been rewarded with the benefits gained by capturing the work those interested in science and engineering careers have provided our economy. We need to continue to encourage steps that allow us to benefit from the great work scientists and engineers provide all of us by allowing everyone interested in those careers the opportunity to pursue them.

Related: Women Working in Science (2007 stats)Women Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and MathScience PhD Job Market in 2012Science and Engineering in Global Economics

2 Responses to “Alternative Career Paths Attract Many Women in Science Fields”

  1. Sarita Happsinski
    June 4th, 2014 @ 11:00 am

    I love this article. As a woman that holds an interest in the medical and science fields, I think we do need to work on providing everyone with the opportunity to pursue the interests they have, no matter if that person is a man or a woman, black, white or purple.

    There are so many people that can bring a lot to the table if they would be allowed the same opportunites as the person next to them. When I went to Ayers school in Shreveport Louisiana for my medical assistant training, we were all treated as people, not as med training, or women training…but equal. I am looking forward to the day when we no longer notice that we have a male or female nurse, but just that we have a kind, and smart nurse.

  2. STEM Graduates in the USA: 465,000 Women and 451,000 Men » Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog
    September 22nd, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

    Total 658,000 women STEM graduates and 486,000 men. If you exclude health (which doesn’t make much sense to me), women still lead 465,000 to 451,000.

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