Women in STEM: Where do we stand?

By Kelcie Kempenich

In mid-April, I attended the School of Journalism and Mass Communication Alumni Award Ceremony, an annual event that recognizes distinguished UW-Madison alumni and current students. While listening to the alumni recipients’ acceptance speeches, I couldn’t help but notice that all but one former professor that the winners thanked were male. This detail should not have been entirely unexpected, considering the alumni were graduates of the journalism school decades ago when most professors were male.

What is surprising is that most professors at UW-Madison are still male.

This is a hard fact to swallow, considering the tremendous progress women have made in education and the workplace in the past 50 years. Today, women make up more than 50 percent of college students around the nation; a statistic that aligns with UW-Madison’s student body.

While this gain is a profound and vital advancement, the gender equity gap is far from closed. More women are graduating from college, but they are graduating with distinct degrees – primarily those the humanities and social sciences. In addition, academic faculty makeup at universities across the nation is still extremely unbalanced.

This is a critical issue that causes concerns for government, industry leaders and educators alike. Research shows that increasing the number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers will propel our national economy, promote superior science, and help close the gender-pay gap.

STEM careers are widely regarded as critical to the national economy, especially because employment in these fields is expected to grow faster than other areas. Workforce projections for 2018 show that nine of the 10 fastest-growing occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree will require significant scientific or mathematical training. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education estimates a supply demand gap of 1.3 million in STEM talent by 2020 in the U.S. If this swell of STEM-related jobs is not filled, questions about the competitiveness of our future global economy will arise.

Having more women in science will not only satisfy the surge for STEM employees, but will also improve the quality of research. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most difficult challenges of our time, ranging from finding the cure to cancer, tackling global warming, and designing many of the things we use daily—buildings, bridges, computers, cars, wheelchairs, and medical equipment. Attracting and retaining more women in the STEM workforce will maximize innovation, ingenuity, and effectiveness in completing these tasks.

“We have so many tough problems to solve, and I think women sometimes bring more to the table than men in terms of their problem-solving approaches. The more that we can promote women within the system, the better off we will be as a society,” said one female scientist that I spoke with.

Furthermore, a diverse workforce tends to create solutions and products that cater to the need of all users. There have been numerous cases where women were not involved in designing products, and thus their needs and desires were overlooked. For example, “some early voice-recognition systems were calibrated to typical male voices. As a result, women’s voices were literally unheard.” In another instance, “a predominantly male group of engineers tailored the first generation of automotive airbags to adult male bodies, resulting in avoidable deaths for women and children” (Margolis & Fisher, 2002, pp. 2–3).

Lastly, engaging more women in science opens doors of opportunity and equity. This year’s Equal Pay Day received a great deal of media attention, bringing light to the fact that the typical full-time working women still earns just $.79 for every $1.00 that men earn. While women in science and engineering fields tend to be well-paid and generally have sufficient job security, they still earn less than men on average in science and engineering fields.

A recent study by researchers at Cornell University found that the root of this gender pay gap is due to the differences in the occupations and industries that men and women work in: “Overall, in fields where men are the majority, the median pay is $962 a week — 21 percent higher than in occupations with a majority of women.” Seeing as most engineering and math-related jobs are male-dominated, it’s not surprising that men consistently earn more than women. However, employing more women in the STEM workforce will help close this gap.

Evidence of the disparities of women in STEM can be found in our own backyard. According to data collected by UW-Madison’s Academic Planning and Institutional Research, women only comprise 34 percent of UW-Madison’s total faculty, and this number plummets in the scientific divisions.

One female scientist that I spoke with from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency articulated this problem, drawing on the media as a major culprit.

“One of the biggest issues for women in science is the underrepresentation in STEM fields. I think this has something to do with the media saying ‘more women are graduating with bachelor’s degrees than men’ but those facts aren’t usually valid for STEM fields. It really seems like things haven’t progressed in the physical sciences.”

UW-Madison is not alone in this imbalance – science is a male-dominated field in most universities and workplaces. Thus, a fundamental questions arises: In an era when women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law, and business, why are so few women becoming scientists and engineers? In addition, how does UW-Madison measure when it comes to women in science?

It turns out this problem is a complex and multidimensional enigma; one that draws from societal stereotypes, less-than-supportive workplace environments, and biological time clocks.

Speaking of clocks, let’s start from the beginning. According to the National Science Board, this trend starts young. The organization’s research reports that “while girls and boys do not significantly differ in their abilities in mathematics and science, they do differ in their interest and confidence in STEM subjects.” In fact, male students in high school are three times more likely than females to be interested in STEM majors and careers.

Take a look at Figure 1 and 2. Across the U.S., males and females are enrolled in advanced placement (AP) math and science classes at similar rates. In 94% of states, the male and female enrollment rates are at 50 percent (+/-5 percent.) At first glance, males and females appear to be relatively equal.


However, this visualization doesn’t show the gender differences that vary within subject. While more females than males did take advanced biology, more males took physics, and alarmingly, males were 6 times more likely than females to have taken engineering in high school. (Figure 3)

One reason for this discrepancy may be due to inherent stereotypes, which lead to a lack in girls’ confidence and interest in STEM subjects. According to the AAUW report, “two stereotypes are prevalent: girls are not as good as boys in math, and scientific work is better suited to boys and men. As early as elementary school, children are aware of these stereotypes and can express stereotypical beliefs about which science courses are suitable for females and males (Farenga & Joyce, 1999; Ambady et al., 2001).”

More than 300 studies have been published that support the finding of “stereotype threats” surrounding women in science and math. A stereotype threat is an emotional burden that arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. For example, a female student taking a math test would experience a stereotype threat related to the idea that women are not good at math, and this could adversely affect her test performance. A repeated or long-term threat can eventually undermine aspirations through a process called “disidentifcation.” For instance, in order to avoid the stereotype that girls are not good at math, “an individual might respond by claiming, ‘I don’t care about math; it’s not who I am.’” Thus, reoccurring stereotype threats may deter young women from entering STEM fields.

Unsurprisingly, the trend of male-dominated STEM fields continues in college. Among first-year college students, women are much less likely than men to say that they intend to major in science, technology, engineering, or math. By graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in some fields. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), while women receive over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences, they receive far fewer in the computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), physics (19.1%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%). (Figure 4)

This pattern is mimicked at UW-Madison. Figure 5 shows that in nearly every major, more males graduated with STEM degrees in all three levels (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate). Fortunately, there has been some significant improvement over the last few decades.
The visualization shows that as time progresses from 1985, women start to make up more of the STEM bachelor’s degree recipients, especially in areas like biology and zoology.

Women have also progressed in areas such as engineering and math, although to a lesser degree. For example, in 1985 women received roughly 12 percent of engineering-related bachelor’s degrees. By 2015, this number increased to 21 percent. In physics, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women jumped from 10 percent to 20 percent in the same time period. Nevertheless, it is plain to see that regardless of the year, degree or level, the number of females receiving STEM degrees is regularly dwarfed by the number of males.

Nationally – as well as at UW-Madison – women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level, and yet again in the transition to the workplace.

According to research from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), in 2006 women earned almost one-half of the doctorates biological and agricultural sciences; just one-third of the doctorates in earth sciences, chemistry and math; and approximately one-fifth of the doctorates in computer science, engineering, and physics.

UW-Madison’s count generally aligns with these national averages. In 2015, women were granted 19 percent of master’s and doctorate degrees in engineering and roughly 23 percent in physics. While this number is low, it is a significant improvement from 1985, when women at UW-Madison earned less than 10 percent of master’s and doctorate degrees in the respective fields.

Naturally, this pipeline trend continues into the STEM workforce. Women make up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, but are less than 25 percent of workers in science-related fields.

Furthermore, female scientists are often concentrated in different occupations than men, with relatively high shares of women working in the social sciences and medical sciences, and relatively low shares in engineering, computer science and math.

Once again, UW-Madison’s male to female ratio in faculty composition follows the national trend. Figure 6 shows that the greatest discrepancy between males and female faculty does indeed occur in the biological and physical sciences, while social studies and humanities yield much closer ratios.

Additionally, as faculty rank increases, the number of women holding higher positions decreases. Figure 7 shows that across the divisions, the number of men and women holding associate and assistant positions are far more balanced than the number of full-time men and women. This is especially evident in the physical sciences division, where full-time men outnumber women 1:6. (If you recall, this same ratio reflects the number of boys and girls who graduate high school having taken an engineering course.)

One recent report from UW-Madison revealed that the number of women in the faculty has increased from 28 percent to 33 percent since 2005. It notes that women have made up at least 40 percent of all assistant professors for over 10 years, and now comprise nearly 40 percent of associate professors as well.

While this is true, it is important to remember that these are overall statistics – they are not representative of the separate divisions. For example, in the physical sciences, women still only make up roughly 15 percent of full-time faculty, 22 percent of associate faculty, and 24 percent of assistant faculty.

Take a look at Figure 8. These faculty funnels show that a) Men consistently hold more positions in each department overall, and b) as the position rank decreases, the disparity between males and females also decreases. For example, there are 219 more men than women holding full-time physical science positions, while only 38 more men than women hold assistant physical science positions. These vital and telling statistics can be easily overlooked when simply analyzing overall trends.

Not only do few women hold higher positions, but they are also more likely to leave or retire at higher rates than their male peers. Studies have speculated this is due to a variety of reasons including unaccommodating workplace environments, family responsibilities, and feelings of isolation.

Research by Madeline Heilman, an organizational psychologist at New York University, showed that people judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work. Furthermore, when a woman is clearly competent in a ‘masculine” job, she is considered to be less likable. “Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind,” the report explained.

“When a woman has shown herself irrefutably to be competent in a male-type field, she then pays the price of social rejection in the form of being disliked. Being disliked appears to have clear consequences for evaluation and recommendations about reward allocation, including salary levels.” The AAUW report cited Heilman’s research as a partial explanation for why women working in STEM occupations leave at higher rates than their male peers do, seeing as “most people don’t enjoy being assumed incompetent or, if thought competent, being disliked.”

Scientist Hannah Stevens* has experienced these challenges firsthand. When asked what she thought the biggest problem facing women in science today was, she responded, “I think certainly having more numbers; a better representation of women in the field is critical. I know that a lot of women face challenges and have faced less-than-supportive environments, and it would be nice to increase the numbers of women in science throughout.”

Unfortunately, recognizing that women’s feelings of isolation is a predictor of high turnover is not a new insight.

“We have been talking about it for a long time, but there’s still certainly not as many women in science proportionally to the population. It’s a challenge that I think has not been met or solved,” said Stevens.

A 2004 study reached the same conclusions, explaining that “because of the low numbers of women, isolation and lack of camaraderie/mentoring are particularly acute problems for women in fields such as engineering, physics, and computer science.” It is unnerving that little progress has been made in this regard over the last 10 years.

The rates of faculty turnover are especially nuanced in academia careers. A recent study on attrition among STEM faculty revealed that women are more likely than men to consider changing jobs within academia compared to other jobs in the STEM workforce. This is due to factors such as dissatisfaction with departmental culture, research support, faculty leadership and advancement opportunities. Figure 9 shows that in 2014, women in physical sciences fields resigned at more than 2 times the rate of men at UW-Madison, whereas the other divisions were fairly level.

One of the most difficult advancement opportunities for women in science is achieving tenure. While women’s representation among faculty in STEM disciplines has increased over time, they remain underrepresented among tenured faculty.

“The path of getting tenure at a university is something that I think prevents a lot of women from entering academics because they are afraid of it, and it seems daunting,” said an Associate Professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at the University of Pittsburgh. “My path was very different than what I think most people would take; it was punctuated by four periods where my tenure stopped: two for medical leave and two for babies. When you compare what a woman like me has had to go through in order to get tenure relative to a man who has a wife who stays at home and packs his lunch every day, it’s just so completely different,” she explained.

Research confirms that family responsibilities are indeed an obstacle in achieving tenure. One 2008 study found that women in the sciences who are married with children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure-track position after receiving a doctorate. Additional research concluded that married women in STEM only appear to have a disadvantage in tenure and promotion decisions if they have children.

This means that while marriage does not appear to have an effect on the likelihood of a woman achieving tenure, having young children does affect their chances for advancement. This is known by some as the “maternal wall.” One female scientist* wrote that the maternal wall is by far the most damaging form of gender bias. “It is the strong assumptions that women lose their work commitment and competence after they have children, and it penalizes mothers who remain indisputably committed,” she claimed.

A supportive workplace environment also plays a role in job retention. The AAUW study confirmed that overall, female faculty were less likely than male faculty to agree that their institutions supported having and raising a child while on the tenure track.

For both men and women, careers, marriage and children are critical components of one’s livelihood. Unfortunately, child-care responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, which affects their decisions to pursue tenure positions and decreases the likelihood they achieve it.

UW-Madison statistics show that promotion rates differ by divisional affiliation. The most recent report states that women in the physical sciences have reached tenure at rates similar to men since 2000.

However, Figure 10 shows that obtaining tenure in the physical sciences does indeed follow a different pattern compared to other divisions. Using data from 1987-2011, the visualization compares the percentage of male and female faculty members that received tenure status, left without tenure status, and those still on probation in a given year. In the biological sciences, humanities and social studies, male and female tenure follow the relatively same patterns. However, the patterns in physical sciences are much more divergent. It is clear to see that fewer women consistently received tenure status from year to year, more women left UW-Madison without tenure status, and a greater number are on still probation.

Analyzing statistics such as these confirm the feelings and experiences of female scientists across the country, and even at our home institution. While understanding why women leave STEM majors is still an important area of research, there are a few solutions that are proven to help recruit and retain women in science. These include hiring more women faculty, implementing peer-mentoring programs and reevaluating the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our society.

As previously noted and visualized throughout, women often make up more than 50 percent of college students but are often invisible at higher ranks, especially in STEM careers. Hiring more women in scientific and academic leadership positions sends a strong message that women are just as capable as men and that diverse perspectives are valued.

In addition, mentoring programs are recognized as an effective and essential solution to the isolation and work-life balance anxieties that women often experience. According to the AAUW report, “The climate of science and engineering departments is closely related to satisfaction of female faculty and that providing effective mentoring and work-life policies can help improve job satisfaction and, hence, the retention of female STEM faculty.”

One example of a successful mentoring program that aims to solve these issues was founded in part by a UW-Madison professor. After experiencing difficulties as a female scientist, professor Tracey Holloway and her colleagues established the Earth Women’s Science Network (ESWN), a nonprofit that inspires women to enter, advance and succeed in scientific careers through peer-mentoring, workshops and networking.

One member of ESWN spoke to the importance of networks like this. “ESWN aligns women in a way so that they don’t feel isolated,” she explained. “They can get opinions from other women on things related to their careers, their research or work-life balances in a non-judgmental way from women all across the career spectrum. That’s a really powerful feeling when you are one of two women in a department.”

“Organizations such as ESWN are essential for promoting women in fields that are absolutely critical for society,” said another member. “It is through organizations like this that we can best affect change.”

Based on the data presented, there are a plethora of reasons that the STEM field is male-dominated. It appears to be a complicated, self-reinforcing cycle. Cultural stereotypes introduced at a young age discourage girls’ confidence in science and math, thus further disintegrating their interest in the subjects. Those women who do enter college in the pursuit of a STEM degree are surrounded by male classmates and professors, which reinforces the original stereotype and creates feelings of isolation. Lastly, a women’s biological timeclock and family responsibilities often overlap with the timeframe of pursuing tenure status, which creates a prolonged process or deters them from achieving it altogether. In effect, women are often absent from higher positions, and again, this reinforces the stereotype that math and science are best suited for males.

It has been more than 40 years since the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage is on the horizon. Women have made substantial advancements, but the fact remains that inequality still exists. It is easy to be blinded by broad statements regarding the progress of women in education, but we must be cognizant of the imbalances that lie underneath. The first step is acknowledging and understanding the problem, and with the help organizations such as ESWN, we can start to close the gap.

*Name changed for anonymity’s sake



[1] U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration: http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf

[2] 2018 US Dept. of Labor Workforce projections

[3] Hill, Catherine, Ph.D., Andresse St. Rose, Ed.D., and Christianne Corbett. “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.” AAUW. Web.

[4] Miller, C. (2016, March 18). As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay Drops. The New York Times. Retrieved May 9, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/upshot/as-women-take-over-a-male-dominated-field-the-pay-drops.html?_r=1

[5] UW-Madison 2015 Data Digest, The Office of the Registrar

[6] The State of Girls and Women in STEM: STEM Connector & My College Options. (2013). Where are the STEM Students? What are their Career Interests? Where are the STEM Jobs?

[7] National Science Board. (2012). Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 12-01)

[8] Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the e ects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113–25.

[9] National Science Board (2012). Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 12-01).

[10] CWU Faculty and Staff Trends 2015: Data on Women and Minority Faculty and Staff at UW-Madison

[11] Society of Women Engineers, 2006; Hewlett et al., 2008; Frehill et al., (2009).

[12] Rosser, S. V. (2004). e science glass ceiling: Academic women scientists and the struggle to succeed. New York: Routledge.

[13] Goulden, M., Frasch, K., & Mason, M. A. (2009). Staying competitive: Patching America’s leaky pipeline in the sciences. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Center on Health, Economic, & Family Security, & e Center for American Progress.

[14] Xu, Y. J. (2008). Gender disparity in STEM disciplines: A study of faculty attrition and turnover intentions. Research in Higher Education, 49(7), 607–24.

[15] Ragins, B.R., & Cotton, J.L. (1999). Mentor Functions and Outcomes: A Comparison of Men and Women in Formal and Informal Mentoring Relationships. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(4).

[16] Earth Women’s Science Network Fundraising Motivation Publication (2012)