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Helping Women Gain Ground in STEM Fields

Written By Jarin Eisenberg

The gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is well known to educators and business professionals. Although women represent almost half of the workforce, they held only about 25% of STEM jobs as of 2011, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report.

There are a variety of explanations as to why women are not better represented in these areas of employment and study. Some attribute the gap to academic climates that are male-dominated. Others insist that a lack of role models in the field leaves women with little guidance and feeling isolated – we rarely see images of women portrayed as computer programmers, engineers or scientists in the media. Still others attribute the gap to a lack of interest.

All of these factors are influenced by K-12 education and the role it plays in encouraging girls to pursue specific areas of study.

The challenges women face in gaining ground in STEM fields are complicated. In order for women to be successful in these professions – for them to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts – we must examine the biases and stereotypes they may encounter, whether subtle or overt. Such prejudices can affect not only a woman’s likelihood of finding employment, but also her chances of getting much needed capital to fund projects.

A July 2014 article on Wired.com highlighted the struggles women can face in male-dominated arenas such as technology.

“We’re inevitably always going to be left out of things, because there are certain lines you can’t cross and things that are unspoken parts of the boys club,” Danielle Weinblatt, co-founder of the video interview platform Take the Interview, told the magazine.

There is a lot to be done to increase women’s representation in key STEM fields, and that includes taking a critical look at technology-based companies that are able to push society forward with their innovative ideas, yet still cling to antiquated ideas when it comes to gender.

The STEM fields offer tremendous potential for qualified professionals, federal statistics show. Between 2000 and 2010, there were three STEM jobs created for every one non-STEM job, the Commerce Department reported. Employment growth in STEM fields is expected to continue outpacing the national average through 2018, at least. The federal agency also reported in 2011 that women in STEM fields earned 33% more than those in non-STEM jobs.

Despite gains over the past 40 years, women are “significantly underrepresented” in the engineering and computer fields, which account for more than 80% of STEM jobs, according to a 2013 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Similarly, although nearly 60% of college undergraduates are female, women accounted for less than 18% of computer science degrees conferred in 2008, the American Association for University Women reports.

The rise of distance education and the prevalence of technology-based online degree offerings lend themselves to a different set of questions. For example, how are gendered processes mitigated in an online environment? Some see asynchronous learning environments as a gender-neutral environment.

In our Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) online degree program at Florida Tech, we found that women represent 34% of our student population, much higher than the national average of just over 22% in graduate classes. In addition, the program has a strong female presence, with just about half of the courses developed and taught by women.

Not only do our online students have female peers in their classes, they are able to see women teaching and performing their field of study.

Jarin Eisenberg is program coordinator for online degree programs at the Nathan M. Bisk College of Business at Florida Institute of Technology, where she also is a Sociology instructor. To learn more about Eisenberg and her work at Florida Tech, read our interview here.

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