Increasing the number of women in STEM is an important challenge for higher education and businesses. Last week the US celebrated the life of Katherine Johnson and the contributions she made to the NASA space program. As a woman in STEM she was a rare individual in the workforce during her career. Today she still would be among a small number of women; as a woman of color she was extremely rare and even today she would be among a small percentage of women in STEM.
There are many reasons and opportunities to encourage women to go into STEM fields. To be competitive world-wide, it is important for the United State to increase the number of women in STEM. Currently we are behind other countries in the number of women who seek STEM education and work in STEM careers. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education reported on a European Commission study of men and women with postsecondary education in 28 European countries. The study showed that numbers of men and women in STEM occupations in those European countries averaged out to be almost equal: 56.5 percent of women worked in STEM occupations compared to 56.6 percent of men.
Compare this to the United States. Women make up more than half of the US population with postsecondary education but only 28 percent of the STEM workforce. Encouraging women to engage in STEM education is important to having a workforce that can fill available jobs. The US Bureau of Labor estimates that by 2027 jobs in STEM fields will grow by 13 percent compared to 9 percent for non-STEM jobs. STEM education is important even beyond STEM jobs. Some estimates are that in the near future, 80 percent of jobs will require STEM knowledge and an understanding of technology.
The need for such a large majority of the workforce to have an understanding of STEM and technology presents businesses with an opportunity to grow their STEM talent from within their own companies. National Science Foundation (NSF) statistics show that women make up 47 percent of the US labor market. They hold more than half of all professional occupations, but only 25.5 percent work in STEM.
Employers that support their employees with tuition benefits can increase the numbers of workers with vital skills. They have the opportunity to increase their numbers of knowledgeable employees by supporting women in STEM education paths and developing STEM career paths. For example, from 2012 to 2017 there was a 40 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science. But only about 20 percent of those degrees went to women and only 6.1 percent of the degrees were awarded to women of color. When they support all women with tuition assistance, employers have the capability to increase the numbers of women in STEM and positively impact their competitive position. “With global competitiveness increasingly linked to building a technologically proficient workforce, ensuring that women and girls have equal access to STEM education is vital for this country’s future economic growth,” states the Society of Women Engineers.
Often women in STEM leave their education and career path because they are not supported as strongly as men. However, employers that offer tuition benefits to support women in STEM can change that. Supporting women in STEM will benefit employers as much as employees. Tuition assistance benefits can help retain employees while they increase their skills and prepare for higher positions. The Society of Women Engineers and People at Work survey supports this idea. The women survey respondents said that growth potential and an empowering work culture built their sense of loyalty and influenced their decision to stay with their employer. They stated their most important benefits were training, development and mentorship.
The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, states “As the global marketplace becomes more focused on technology and innovation, it’s important to ensure that men and women have equal opportunities to participate and advance through the STEM pipeline. The attrition of women and girls from STEM fields does not benefit their male counterparts; rather, it removes major opportunities to increase our nation’s economic competitiveness in science and technology. Institutional and workplace policies that promote the full participation of women are needed in order to take advantage of our nation’s capacity for innovation.”
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