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Strong Female Lead

Why Are These 3 STEM Fields Dominated By Women?

Three STEM fields that are disproportionately female can teach other industries about how to boost the ranks to include more women.

Why Are These 3 STEM Fields Dominated By Women?
[Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)]

We’ve all heard how few women study science, technology, engineering and math and how under-represented they are in the STEM workforce.

A quick snapshot shows that, while girls and boys in elementary and high school do not significantly differ in their abilities in science and math, boys are more than three times likely to be interested in pursuing STEM majors.

From there, the gender gap widens. Though women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields, they hover between 18-19% of degrees in computer science and physics.

In the workforce, where women make up 47% of employees, they only represent a quarter of the jobs in mathematical sciences and 13% of engineers.

There are a few bright spots. Statistics, botany, and healthcare are three areas where women dominate. We asked leaders in these fields to tell us why women lead the pack, and what they can teach others about achieving a better balance.

Creating Community

Before she founded Maven, a digital clinic for women, CEO Katherine Ryder worked in the largely male-dominated venture capital industry. That experience helped her design a company that would not only cater to the specific needs of female patients, but also serve as a vehicle to employ and empower female healthcare providers who weren’t physicians.

Women represent nearly 80% of the health care workforce in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet women's participation in leadership positions in health care is low, notes Ryder. "Only about 21% of health care executives and board members are female, and only about one third of doctors are women," she tells Fast Company.

Ryder also observed that women not only visit doctors more often but that they had far more follow-up questions post exam––particularly those planning to get pregnant as well as new mothers with young children. Ryder also found that women make 80% of health care decisions in the U.S. and are most likely to be caregivers when a family member gets sick.

On the provider side, Ryder points out that about 90% of nurses are female (even though male nurses make, on average, $5,000 more per year) and women are more likely to be lactation consultants, physical therapists, or nutritionists.

"At Maven, we connected these dots, recognizing that these non-physician providers, who were disproportionately women, were underutilized in telemedicine," says Ryder. Though Maven has doctors, 95% of its practitioners are female nurse practitioners, midwives, physical therapists, nutritionists, lactation consultants, doulas, and mental health specialists.

Several studies have shown that female patients are more satisfied with a woman practitioner. And in other fields including medicine, research revealed that when talking to women in leadership positions like a health care provider, people tended to interrupt more, which reflects a greater sense of comfort, empowerment, and participation.

Ryder says, "I think it reflects an opportunity to bring this community of women into the fold of telemedicine and enable them to share their expertise with female patients who need it," especially as health care costs continue to rise and access to providers is limited for many.

A Mentor Just Like Me

Beyond health care, 46% of those in the biological sciences overall are women. Among them, botany has drawn women into its ranks as far back as the Victorian era, when working outside the home in any occupation wasn’t considered socially acceptable.

Kay Havens, the Medard and Elizabeth Welch director of plant science and conservation at the Chicago Botanic Garden, got interested in cultivating plants at the tender age of eight when she started growing vegetables in her backyard. "Exploring nature as a child is a significant source of inspiration to study science later in life," says Havens. She went on to get a PhD in biology at Indiana University, Bloomington, but credits female mentors as being the support network who helped her career.

"Without strong mentorship, it can be difficult for anyone to navigate any career but particularly one in the sciences, which are often dominated by men," Havens notes, adding, "Peggy Olwell, today the plant conservation program manager at the Bureau of Land Management, was that mentor."  

Havens wanted to help others in the same way. So she and Olwell teamed up again as peers to start a government/NGO partnership, Conservation Land Management fellowship, which trains the next generation of botanists while providing strong female leadership and direct mentorship. This type of modeling has been shown to reduce gender bias in male-dominated industries.

Placing 75-100 students each year, internships with the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other federal agencies, provide hands-on experience in botany or other wildlife-related fields. "Through the internship program, which emphasizes the importance of mentorship, we’re trying to cultivate the next generation of conservation land and plant managers," Havens maintains. "Mixing the opportunity, exposure to nature and mentorship is key to a career in biological science."

Statistically More Collaborative

Women are filling the ranks of statisticians in greater numbers recently, thanks in part to the surge of jobs and the allure of working with big data. Over 40% of statistics degrees are awarded to women as well as the number of faculty in statistics departments that will move to tenured positions.

David Morganstein, president of the American Statistical Association, believes women are drawn to the field because it is very collaborative. "It uses an understanding of variation to make better decisions regarding vital societal issues," he says.

Morganstein notes that female colleagues say they are attracted to this collaborative environment and are highly motivated to help solve problems in health, education, the environment and other areas that impact people’s lives. Studies have borne this out. A recent paper by the found that women are attracted to a co-operative work environment.

"Our profession is very open and welcoming and as a result is very diverse," he adds. By appreciating the magnitude, complexity and importance of the problems society faces, Morganstein says, "We realize that we need all the talent we can find to address these issues and we welcome anyone with the skills and the passion to address and resolve them."

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