Advancing the Image of Engineering One Audience at a Time

Career Factors

Factors that Impact Career Choices in STEM

Ever wonder why there are so few women in Engineering and the Sciences? Especially when high school girls have been earning more credit hours and higher GPA’s in math and science for over 20 years and 74% of high school girls report enjoying math and science [1][2]. When it comes to choosing which field girls want to major in college, something happens. Their enjoyment of the math and sciences do not translate into certain types of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) degrees. While women have been earning more bachelor degrees for over 40 years, earn more doctorate degrees, they still represent less than 20% in the degrees awarded for engineering, physics and computer sciences and less than 11% in the workplace. Their percentages in these fields have remained stagnant for over the last 30 years.  Page updated August 1, 2014.

Environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender biases, and the climate of science and engineering departments – play a large factor in preventing women from wanting to participate in these fields according to a large body of research and captured in a recent 2010 report by the AAUW entitled  Why So Few? Women in STEM [1].  If students don’t sense that they fit in for whatever reason, it has a psychological impact that will steer them away from the field. Several commercials in recent media on gender based social research demonstrate how we can contribute unconsciously to this trend.

The Environment affects Girls’ achievements & interests in math & science related fields

Despite the progress girls have made in STEM, common stereotypes exist that if anyone is better at math and science, it is the boys. Stereotypes like this have been shown to have a measurable impact on high stake tests such as the SAT. This phenomenon called “Stereotype Threat” [1:3] is where an individual internalizes the stereotype resulting in a type of self-fulfilling prophecy. Math stereotypes can hurt women’s performance as shown in this 7-min video Women, Math and Stereotype Threat [3]. These threats can be easily induced and have been demonstrated to influence performance in a number of different stereotypes across races, cultures and gender.  These effects can be mitigated by raising awareness of the stereotype threat phenomena as detailed in Shielding Students from Stereotype Threat[4]

Stereotypes act as a type of cognitive crutch that we use to judge ourselves. Even when we do not believe the stereotype, what other people believe can influence how we view ourselves and women tend to be a much harsher judge of themselves. When students are told that “men have traditionally shown more ability” in a task, women will rate their performance 14% lower and state they need to score 10% higher in order to see themselves as successful. Yet when the students are told that “both men and women tend to perform equally” in this task, both boys and girls rate and judge themselves equally. These Self-Assessments [1:4] demonstrate the power that outdated stereotypes can have on our views of success. To prevent women from relying on outdated stereotypes, build transparency into evaluations to help them form a more realistic assessment of their work.

To be successful in STEM, students need a foundation in basic Spatial Skills [1:5] – an ability to visualize the mental rotation of objects. Without it, problems are more difficult which can affect confidence particularly when their peers find it relatively effortless.  Significant gender differences exist; women have been shown to fail a basic spatial skills test at a rate of 3x that of men [1]. Spatial reasoning [5] is a skill set that can be identified, easily learned, and can improve the retention of women and under represented populations in STEM.  Spatial skills can be learned by engaging students in activities that include:  playing video games like tetris, creating artwork, working with their hands, playing with certain toys such as Legos, Lincoln Logs, or Erector Sets that allow children to take things apart and put them back together again. It can also be taught as a 1-credit hour course [9] to college students to develop these skill sets to a competent level [1].

Bias, often unconscious, limits women’s progress in scientific and engineering fields

Over 70% of people associate math and science fields with “male”. This unconscious or Implicit Bias [1:8] is common even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias can afftect people with the best of intentions finding themselves doing and saying things that even they would find violate their own sense of what’s right. If you are a counselor who believes that engineering is an excellent career choice for women, it is imperative to make sure your actions match your values to influence women’s likelihood in pursuing their STEM interests. Implicit biases – inherited from the generations before us – once uncovered can help us to authentically relay viable career paths, build effective diversity initiatives and better align reality with our values. This free 10-min Implicit Association Test ( can help individuals discover their own often implicit biases in a number of different diversity areas. Take the “Gender and Sciences” test to begin building awareness of the subconscious preferences and associations you have. The Gladwell book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking also has a chapter on implicit biases and how to affect change.

Being as good as a man while doing a “man’s work” simply isn’t good enough when women face social rejection for the same assertive behaviors that men are lauded for. This Workplace Bias [1:9]double bind is only faced by women in male dominated fields where they are seen as either likable or competent – but not both – as demonstrated in this Pantene Ad. Why is this important? To advance in a career, the research also shows that both likeability and competence are important. For it is the combination of both of these factors that help you get selected for choice assignments, get that promotion and increase your pay.  Without both, work can be tough. Women must walk a delicate line between success and attempting not to step over societal norms of being communal (caring, good listeners). Workplace Bias – Chapter 9 –

Little changes can make a big difference in attracting and retaining women

The culture of departments in the College Student Experience [1:6] is a critical issue preventing women from pursuing majors in STEM fields. To attract and retain diverse and talented students, it is critical to provide multiple ways to “be in” these fields. HBCU have demonstrated double the success rates in Physics by creating pathways for students who like the field but may not have all the preparation, reaching out to students in introductory courses, integrating students into the department soon after declaring their major, and supporting activities that fostered a broader inclusive culture including seminars, trips, and social events that allowed more interaction with faculty and students to interact. One Carnegie Mellon study [6] was able to increase the percentage of women in their Computer Science program from a floundering 7% to an extraordinary 40% in under 5 years by making small incremental changes to departmental culture so that no one clique dominates, broadening curriculum to add applications to early course work, sending an inclusive message by modifying admissions policies, and performing outreach [7]. You don’t have to aim at women to have the benefits for women. Women’s retention at Carnegie Mellon increased from 60% to 100% in Computer Science and men’s from 80% to 100%.  Proof that what is good for women is good for men.

Job satisfaction is key to retention, but STEM women and people of color in University & College Faculty [1:7] are significantly less satisfied with the workplace and are more likely to leave the academy earlier in their early careers. Women are less satisfied with how well they “fit” in their departments, opportunities to work with senior faculty, and institutional support for having a family while on the tenure track. Fitting in is enhanced when men or women feel that they have good professional and personal interactions with colleagues, senior faculty have an interest in their professional development, and junior faculty are treated fairly. Because of the low numbers of women, isolation and lack of camaraderie/mentoring can be a major source of dissatisfaction. Mentoring can provide the behind the scenes conversation crucial to fitting in the department and getting tenure.



Comments on: "Career Factors" (1)

  1. […] learned: the AAUW research material is still fresh, educators are eager to connect up with engineers who might want to visit […]

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