In December of 2015, the United Nations General Assembly called for a national day of celebration of women in STEM on February 11 to shrink the gender gap that continues to define the fields of science, tech, engineering and math.

This year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science is based on “inclusive green growth,” in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—a particularly relevant subject in a world molded and shaped by new technology.

“Everything operates with the sciences,” says Andrea Hendricks, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College and author of Top Hat textbook College Algebra With Support. With young children of her own, Hendricks has observed a greater need to get young girls interested and engaged in STEM subjects at an elementary level. “I actually think that that’s a critical age to really pique the interest and to give all students the mindset that they can achieve.”

One critical aspect of promoting women in science is to make sure young girls have visible role models. Hendricks points to the greater number of women in television and movie roles in science-based fields as progress. “The generation coming up have seen TV shows like ‘Criminal Minds’ or ‘CSI’ where they have females in roles that dig into all the forensic sciences. I think that’s busting the stereotypes down, and probably the kids growing up and seeing females in those roles would probably be more attuned to taking a path in that direction.”

The role that education leadership plays

Greater representation also needs to come within the walls of schools and institutions. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, women make up less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers. Central Asia has come the farthest in balancing the scales, with 48 percent of women in the field; North America and Western Europe both tail behind with only 32 percent of researchers being female.

“Having those role models is absolutely essential,” says Jennifer Donovan, a lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences and lead author of Introductory Chemistry on the Top Hat marketplace. “If you don’t necessarily have a good representative sample of our population in those leadership positions, it’s sometimes difficult for students to identify with them and with whatever their backgrounds might be.”

Like Hendricks, Donovan has observed through her own children’s experience a greater need for outreach and encouragement at the elementary and high school level—something universities have a responsibility to get involved in. For instance, Arizona State University’s Fulton Schools of Engineering offers a range of outreach programs, including an annual Girls Make-a-Thon, taking place on April 19, 2019. The girls-only event aims to connect students with female leaders in the engineering world through a series of workshops. To Donovan, this is the kind of leadership needed to make real strides in closing the gender gap for women in STEM. “We all have a common goal for our students to be successful. Providing some opportunities to get these students interested in the STEM fields makes a huge difference.”

Table: Percentage of women in STEM professions

Year 1995 2006 2015
All STEM occupations 22.4 26.1 28.4
Computer and mathematical scientists 29.0 26.5 26.4
Biological, agricultural, and environmental life scientists 34.7 43.7 47.9
Physical scientists 21.5 28.4 27.8
Social scientists 49.9 54.2 59.8
Engineers 8.6 11.6 14.5
Over a 20-year period from 1995, the ratio of women to men in STEM professions increased by six percentage points. Social science is the only STEM discipline where women outnumber men. Source: National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators, 2018.

Industry backing

Programs to promote women in science are just as crucial at the professional level. Boeing offers a range of mentorship opportunities for women in the engineering field, with opportunities for employees to get involved in professional associations like the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, Women in Aviation International and Women of Color in STEM. The book Trailblazers: The Women of The Boeing Company illustrates a long line of female leaders that shaped the monolithic company as it is today.

“It’s not that females haven’t been in those roles,” says Hendricks. “I think the stories have just not been told in a way that draws women’s interest in it. Now with some [Hollywood] producers trying to actually tell some of the stories, it is making a path for girls to see that there are role models and people that have done those things before, and that they can do them.”

On a global level, encouraging the participation of young girls and women in STEM is particularly important given the focus on green technology and the need for innovation. This year’s theme paints a picture of a changing professional landscape, where innovations in science are defining a new workforce. “I’ve told my students this as well, but really the future is primarily in the STEM fields,” Donovan explains. “Eventually, we’re going to see some jobs go away and some jobs that we’re not even aware of be created.”

Both opportunity and representation are still needed to get more women in positions of leadership in the science world, and part of that requires a reversal of stereotypes that have been cemented over time. Government initiatives like prolonged family leave programs will be essential in not just closing the gender gap but the motherhood gap, too. “I have two kids of my own and I was barely able to take time off with them,” says Donovan. “We shouldn’t have to choose.”