Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields. Bridging the gap requires attention and investment from both educators and employers.
Much ink has been spilled about the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). It’s clear in the numbers: only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer science majors at American universities are women. There are several reasons for this gap, including the lower retention rate of women in STEM fields and challenges relating to women’s career advancement (such as a lack of role models and mentors), among others. Regardless of the social and cultural reasons worldwide that cause women to avoid or drop out of STEM fields, it’s no secret that the lack of gender diversity in these fields is systemic.
It’s especially difficult for women from emerging markets to thrive in STEM fields. Consider India, where women comprise 43% of STEM university graduates – among the world’s highest share. But women are only 14% of STEM workers at Indian research and development institutions and universities – a far lower share than their counterparts in the U.S. and U.K. (34% and 38%, respectively).
Women globally suffer from a “leaky pipeline” that removes them from STEM fields at every step from education to employment. At a time when firms from Boston to Bangalore are craving talented STEM workers, there is ample opportunity to encourage womens’ interest in STEM professions by consciously increasing gender diversity within these fields.
The problem begins with access to higher education in these areas. In many emerging markets, education financing is usually dependent on the student’s family members cosigning or pledging a home as collateral. Many families in these areas may not have the required collateral or credit history, be willing to risk the financial exposure that such a loan would bring, or support the educational aspirations of their children. This is especially the case for women pursuing an overseas education.
Financing that does not require a collateral or cosigner can be transformative, especially for women interested in STEM fields, and empowers women who come from patriarchal cultures. A new report from MPOWER Financing shows that no-cosigner, no-collateral loans for international students were a particularly valuable catalyst for women from around the world pursuing a STEM education in the U.S. and Canada. The report notes that 52% of female students with an MPOWER loan are pursuing a STEM-related degree. Because MPOWER focuses on the student’s future earning potential, women pursuing degrees in STEM have an opportunity to secure financing on the basis of their future prospects. As a result, these types of programs can dramatically increase the number of women that pursue an education in STEM fields.
In recent years, the availability of such financing has encouraged more women from emerging nations to pursue an overseas education – especially in STEM fields, which is promising for both the economy and society. However, global data masks certain regional and country disparities: Although 43% of MPOWER’s students are women, they are more underrepresented in countries like India (38%), Nigeria (37%), and Ghana (32%). Tackling this inequity and promoting global STEM education for women requires a concerted effort by universities, investors, and employers alike.
As a vital first step, universities can explore and update their policies and culture. 76% of female students report facing challenges when financing their overseas education because financial solutions are rarely presented by colleges seeking to enroll international students. Universities have a unique opportunity to communicate and provide financing options for students at the beginning of the process, encouraging more students to apply. Schools can also consider developing specific scholarships and policies (such as application fee waivers) for deserving women.
Educational lending organizations can play an important role in providing a variety of financing options and opportunities; for example, MPOWER Financing offers nearly US$20,000 annually in scholarships to Women in STEM as part of its broader scholarship commitment of US$500,000; however, financing a student’s education in STEM only solves part of the challenge.
Employers play a key role in attracting women to STEM degrees and professions, ensuring that they stay within the field of their selected study. In my personal capacity as Head of Engineering at MPOWER Financing, I have focused on increasing the number of women engineers by prioritizing mentorship and advancement opportunities. Through these efforts, my engineering team has grown rapidly over the last four years as we have, and continue to, actively recruit female engineers.
Retaining women in STEM fields requires enabling them to simultaneously contribute to their employers, families, and communities. This is where the COVID-19 pandemic may have counterintuitively been a catalyst for some women’s careers. As working from home has globally become the norm, the added acceptance and flexibility for women and other caregivers to work full time while caring for loved ones is becoming more common and allows for the increased retention of women in STEM fields. Many employees — both men and women alike — have had their children pop into their Zoom windows while in meetings (mine included) which has helped humanize working parents in an environment where other colleagues can relate to their challenges.
Women balancing work and family may be particularly subject to burnout, which is at an all-time high according to a report from the American Psychological Association. It’s important for employers to have resources available to support mental and physical health, and to encourage taking time off. This behavior must be modeled from the top, and can include unplugging from work to care for family members or take maternity/paternity leave. Employers can also celebrate personal events and company wins to boost morale, bolster teamwork, and make the workplace more enjoyable and rewarding.
Bridging the global gender gap in STEM will take time and effort, and requires universities, financial firms, and businesses to consciously invest in and support women from around the world. It’s important that we get this right: investing in womens’ potential and enabling deserving students worldwide to access a world-class education helps build the global talent pool, grows and diversifies the U.S. economy, and spurs innovation and entrepreneurship.
Written by Pari Lennartz, Vice President of Engineering for MPOWER Financing.
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