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Solving the Gender Equality Problem in Multiple STEM Fields

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March is Women’s History Month. The actual celebration of Women’s History Month grew out of a weeklong celebration of women’s contributions to culture, history and society organized by the school district of Sonoma, California, in 1978.

This month not only highlights the global contributions of women, but also the changing roles of women in the pursuit of advancing equality in politics, arts and entertainment, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Learn more about degrees in the School of STEM at American Public University.

There have been strides made in equality. For instance, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first person of Southeast Asian descent and the first person of African-American descent elected to the vice presidency. But there are still many areas in our society that have yet to reach true equality. 

Getting Women into STEM Fields: A Multi-Faceted Approach Is Needed

Women account for over 50% of the workforce in nursing, social work and education, but less than 30% in STEM fields, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Getting more women to study STEM has been a priority for over a decade. However, the solution to getting more women into STEM fields may require a multi-faceted approach.

First, STEM education needs to begin at the earliest possible level, which includes children at the preschool level to five years of age.

Second, mentoring is needed at the elementary and middle school levels to encourage young women to pursue careers in these fields. In high school, the emphasis should be on hands-on activities and volunteer/internship positions, so young women can experience STEM environments before entering college.

As women transition to college, the gender equality paradox depends on life satisfaction. Many people pick a career not just to pursue a passion, but want to obtain a salary that enables them to afford a comfortable lifestyle.

As women enter the STEM workplace, they often find that when their job satisfaction is high, they are less driven by economic interest. However, challenges with work-life balance, pay parity, and cultural expectations often cause women to leave STEM fields after starting families. Unfortunately for women, inequities still exist in the areas of pay parity, leadership and cultural expectations.

Pay Parity

The pay gap between men and women in the U.S. ranges from 17% to 45%. The Center for American Progress states pay parity is a result of the gender wage gap, which is defined as the difference in earnings between women and men: “Experts have calculated this gap in a multitude of ways, but the varying calculations point to a consensus: Women consistently earn less than men, and the gap is wider for most women of color. Analyzing the most recent Census Bureau data from 2018, women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races.”

As a result, working women are financially disadvantaged by the need to pay daycare and eldercare expenses and find flexible work arrangements. Flexibility within an organization directly relates to employee retention, engagement, and productivity for both men and women.

According to Nature writer Chris Wolston, the pay gap between men and women is widening: “Among those with a permanent job at hand, men reported an expected median annual salary of US$95,000. Women reported an expected median salary of $72,500, a gap of $22,500. In a similar survey in 2020, the overall gender gap in expected salaries was $18,000.”

Leadership

Effective leadership comes in many forms, yet women are often criticized when they assume leadership traits that are more characteristic of men. We need all types of leaders; however, there are gender biases when a woman’s leadership style does not align with preconceived notions that influence how we view others.

For example, male leadership includes authoritative actions, which highlight qualities such as assertiveness, aggressiveness and decisiveness. These same qualities are often frowned upon when they are observed in female leaders.

Building gender equality means understanding the underlying factors that contribute to today’s workplace imbalances. Here are a few situations that women often encounter in the workplace:

  1. The Sticky Floor Syndrome refers to women being stuck in a bottleneck of middle management with predominantly white men being promoted over women and minority men.
  2. The Glass Cliff Syndrome is where women are more likely to be placed in precarious management roles, ones that are considered risky and have a higher rate of failure associated with them.
  3. The Glass Ceiling is where higher-level positions are dominated by men and extremely limited to women.
  4. The Glass Wall Syndrome are sectors or occupations where women dominate and have few entries into more male-dominated similar fields. Examples would be women entering teaching versus education administration and becoming nurses rather than surgeons.

Cultural Expectations

Women have long been perceived as nurturers, an expectation that has followed them to the workplace. As a result, the cultural norm within an organization may be to expect women to assume traditional household roles in the workplace as well.

Yes, women are expected to be caring and empathetic. Therefore, women are expected to excel in both of these areas.

For instance, women are expected to organize workplace activities, clean up after activities and work outside of standard work hours. In addition, some managers may disapprove when women lack nurturing characteristics or if they prioritize their home lives over work responsibilities.

Equity Is Key to Resolving the Problem

Inequities can take many forms because these gender biases are not as apparent and often appear as microaggressions. The key to addressing inequities in pay parity, leadership, and cultural expectations is to acknowledge that an issue exists, start a meaningful conversation about potential solutions, and have a 360-degree approach to developing viable solutions.

Reframing the conversation to include women and men at all levels of leadership is essential to develop empathy, equity, and equality in the workplace. Developing transparent hiring practices and pairing new hires with mentors and coaches can also create a more welcoming work environment.

In addition, flexibility for traditional job roles is needed to enhance employee retention. A holistic approach to explicit and implicit bias is needed to address gender inequities, not just during Women’s History Month, but all year long.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, CLTD, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in project management and supply chain management. A global speaker and STEM advocate, she obtained a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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