STEM Gap: Growing Women Leaders in Sciences From Classroom to C-Suite

The push continues for more women in STEM fields, but a gap persists.

The push continues for more women in STEM fields, but a gap persists.

The deliberate push for more women leaders in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math has been expanding for the past decade. The movement begins with girls in grade schools, moving through universities and academia into C-suites of innovation and technology start-ups.

The latest update is that progress for women in sciences is here, though gaps in academia and industry persist. Many institutions, organizations, foundations, universities and individuals are putting funding and energy toward efforts to close the gender gap and increase the successful pipeline to women’s leadership in the sciences.

Progress for women in sciences is here, though gaps in academia and industry persist #womeninSTEM #taketheleadwomen

Many observe that the push came to shove in January 2005 when then-Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers told the National Bureau of Economic Research “that the under-representation of female scientists at elite universities may stem in part from ‘innate’ differences between men and women, according to The Crimson.

The outrage that erupted in the sciences and beyond sparked action on many fronts and the fruits of those efforts bear out in 2016.

“According to, women in STEM fields are twice as likely to be selected for tenure-track jobs in their field than men. In addition, women selected for these positions are offered salaries equal to those of their male counterparts,” writes Julie Kantor in Huffington Post.

And while networking, opportunities and positions may be more available, many say it is up to women in the sciences to achieve leadership positions themselves.

“Women who want to attain leadership roles in science and technology fields – as in any other field – need to be assertive in seeking opportunities,” according to panelists at the BioOhio Women in BioScience Conference in Columbus recently, writes Carrie Ghose in Columbus Business First.

“If a woman never hears ‘no’ in an attempt at career advancement, ‘You haven’t been stretching enough, says Michelle Brown, COO of CoverMyMeds LLC,” write Ghose. “”While women are evenly represented in the work force as a whole, they make up one-third of workers in the sciences and 15 percent in engineering.”

Carol WhitacreOhio State University’s senior vice president for research, told the group to “seek out new responsibilities and try not to turn down opportunities to prove yourself,” Ghose writes.

Yet, even with these advancements, a gap in salary still exists. The Scientist’s newly released  2016 survey of researchers, academics and scientists in industry found, “The largest gap is among full professors; females earn an average of $13,000 less than their male counterparts.”

According to the survey, male full professors make $156, 915 per year, while female professors earn $143, 640. Male assistant professors in the sciences earn $88.029 per year, while women earn $80, 822.

“Economists have proposed a number of contributing factors to explain the gender gap in academia, including area of specialization and the nature of salary and start-up package negotiations. Women in STEM careers surveyed for the study make 31 percent less than males a year after receiving their PhDs, and while much of the gap is attributable to their chosen research specialty, 11 percent is explained by marriage and kids,” according to Karen Zusi in The Scientist.

“’You could say, ‘Well, women are choosing to spend more time with their families and children, and that’s a voluntary decision to scale back their hours,’ but you could also say to yourself, ‘Why is it that women make those decisions whereas men don’t?’ asks Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State University and a coauthor on the study. ‘There’s some indication that these jobs, these career tracks, are not fully family-friendly,’” Zusi writes.

According to the 2016 survey, “responses also highlight variation in the gender ratios among scientists in different specialties. Only 23 percent of respondents studying bioinformatics are female, for example, and in the fields of biochemistry, chemistry, drug discovery and development, and environmental science, women account for only about a third of respondents. Cell biology, genetics, microbiology, and virology trend in the opposite direction, with females making up more than 55 percent of respondents,” Zusi reports.

It is when scientists make the leap to industry and innovation that their salaries increase, male and female, the survey shows.

It is when scientists make the leap to industry and innovation that their salaries increase #womeninSTEM #taketheleadwomen

“Of all the life scientists surveyed this year, directors in US industry have the highest average earnings at $204,016, a leap from last year’s reported $178,457. Averaging across industry positions reveals that salaries in the sector maintain their dominant lead over academic salaries, with life scientists working in US industry earning an average of $132,121, compared with just $89,284 for those in academia,” Zusi writes.

“’These sector-based income differences may contribute heavily to the salary gender gap when life scientists are grouped together across the board, says Shulamit Kahn, an economist at Boston University currently working on a study of the pay gap for women in STEM fields.’”

Back on campus, “In mathematics, just 15 percent of tenure-track positions are held by women, one of the lowest percentages among the sciences, along with computer science (18 percent), and engineering (14 percent),” writes Jane C. Hu in The Atlantic.

“’Softer’ sciences tend to have more women in tenure-track positions, like in psychology (55 percent women) and biology (34 percent),” Hu writes.

New research from Chad Topaz, a professor at Macalester College, and Macalester computer scientist Shilad Sen shows that women are ignored and left out of academic publishing opportunities critical to tenure success.

“In their analysis of 13,000 editorship positions on 435 math journals, they found that just under 9 percent of all math journal editorial positions are held by women. The median journal has an editorial board with 7.6 percent of editorships held by women, but one in ten journals have no female editors at all,” Hu writes.

These numbers show that something is going on in the field of mathematics, but more research is necessary to understand what’s driving the disparity. Gender disparities may be especially pervasive in mathematics due of the culture of the field. It has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and it can feel like an old boys’ club to many women,” Hu writes.

Gender disparities may be especially pervasive in mathematics due of the culture of the field #womeninSTEM

Some universities are making distinct efforts to change the culture for women in the STEM fields, starting with beginning salaries equal for men and women. At Manhattan College, “Essentially, someone who is hired today as a new faculty member can be making more in five years than someone who has been working at Manhattan College for over 20 years,” according to MCQuad.

Roksana Badruddoja, Ph.D., professor of sociology and Chair of the Women and Gender studies department, told MC Quad that “of the many factors that perpetuate the wage gap, she focuses on the motherhood penalty.”

“In the past two decades, we have not passed any major federal policies to help any human being accommodate family and work responsibilities. Stephanie Coontz, spokesperson of Council on Contemporary Families finds that we Americans express the highest level of work-family conflicts compared to our European counterparts,” Badruddoja said.

Dr. Anna Powers, creator of Powers Education, is on the faculty at NewYork University, scientist and recipient of the Global STEM Leadership Award from the American Chemical Society CM&E Group, the first woman in 50 years to receive the award. She works to equalizing the playing field in the sciences. The first step is mentorship, Powers says.

“As I continued teaching at the university level, I noticed that many young women did not have a good foundation in science and had diminished confidence in their ability to succeed. I would often hear ‘I am not good in math/science’ and ‘How do you do this? I can’t.’ So, I started working with young women and became their mentor,” Powers told Laura Dunn of the Huffington Post.

“This experience led me to create Powers Education — a company with a curriculum to teach science in a fun and accessible way, specifically focused on building confidence and a strong foundation in the sciences for future use. Powers Education is for women, by women. All the tutors I employ are stars in their discipline, they are women of excellence whom I train in the Powers Method, which makes science accessible and fun,” Powers told Dunn.

Powers added, “I think a career in the STEM is the most exciting thing a young woman can do. Not only is this an intellectually rich environment, it is growing at rate of 1.7 times faster than other fields, it is financially rewarding and a space where women can make an impact through innovation.”

Many private and public universities are investing in women in STEM. At  Clemson University, for instance, a new $3.4 million initiative launched “to create an inclusive academic culture so women and underrepresented minorities are encouraged to enter and remain in academia,” according to Clemson.

Through the National Science Foundation, the program is called ADVANCE: Increasing Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers.

Kantor in the Huffington Post echoes the need to encourage and applaud women in STEM. “Society continuously downplays (women) by dismissing the stunning achievements of women in STEM and entrepreneurship. It’s time to showcase these great breakthroughs by recognizing them. By promoting and sharing the stories of successful women in STEM, we can draw global attention to their strides and increase the pipeline of girls and women entering these meaningful fields and careers.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon