By Iris Stone
Posted April 2015
Table of Contents
1. What is STEM?
2. Why Are There So Few Women in STEM?
3. Famous Women in STEM
4. Ways to Get Involved in High School
5. How to Prepare for College
6. Top 10 Undergraduate Schools in STEM
8. Careers in STEM
“STEM” is an acronym that stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.” Most often, people use the term to describe a specific category of degree programs in colleges and/or careers. People sometimes use variations of this acronym, such as STEAM, MINT, or STREAM, to incorporate topics such as Arts or Robotics, but STEM is by far the most popular term.
The term first rose to popularity in the United States following discussions in schools regarding the troubling lack of students prepared for these fields. Some state governments – Texas in particular – also apply the term as a way to distinguish immigrants with skill sets in the math and sciences.
As subject classifications like “science” and “technology” are quite broad, most educational institutions follow the lead of the National Science Foundation, which considers physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, information technology, cybernetics, geoscience, astronomy, and many others as part of STEM. Some also consider the social sciences (such as economics) as a valid part of this category, but for the most part this guide will focus on mathematics, computer science and IT, traditional engineering (such as the mechanical and electrical subfields) and the “hard sciences.”
One problem that educators often discuss is the significant underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. Walk into any college physics or engineering class and you will undoubtedly find that males occupy most – if not all – seats. This trend worsens as math and science classes become more advanced, and in fact many college professors even admit that women occasionally struggle with the topics and shift to other majors.
But why? At the elementary school level, young girls frequently express an interest in science and math as much as English or history. Yet by the time they attend college, only four percent of women profess an interest in computer science or engineering, compared to nearly a fifth of college-aged men. These statistics pan out similarly for biology and pre-medical careers.
Researchers have posited a number of explanations for this discrepancy. To be sure, environmental factors play a role. Although American society has long-abandoned the idea that women are only fit to be mothers and wives, certain industries have nonetheless been reticent to accept females into the workforce. Parents and educators sometimes reinforce this limitation, whether consciously or not. Young girls receive messages constantly regarding what aspirations are “appropriate.” Even seemingly harmless toys like Barbie suggest that women can be secretaries and nurses, but not scientists or doctors.
Others suggest that biology is the culprit, as women’s brains often don’t possess the same spatial reasoning abilities as men – a skill crucial to successful performance in most STEM fields. Another explanation recognizes that a portion of women do attempt to pursue careers in science and technology, but “drop off” as they continually experience obstacles and discouragement from peers. That being said, some insist that women simply don’t possess the same interest in math and engineering that men do, and in fact one study found that nearly 40 percent of women in STEM careers have at some point considered that another job might better suit their interests. However, this data is somewhat outdated and not largely supported by other research.
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889): Maria Mitchell began her career in Nantucket, teaching girls math and science at the mere age of 17. Before she turned 30, Maria achieved international renown in the field of astronomy when she discovered a comet, becoming the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1865 Vassar College hired Mitchell, making her the first female astronomy professor in the United States.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968): At the time Lise Meitner grew up in Austria, girls could not pursue a formal education past the age of 14. Fortunately for Meitner, Austria changed course by the time she turned 21, opening the doors of its universities to women. Despite this opportunity, when she went to Berlin to work with Otto Hahn on his studies of radioactivity, the university would only allow Meitner, who was foreign, Jewish, and female, to work in basement facilities. Regardless, Otto and Lise continued their work over the coming decades – even when Hitler’s rise in Germany forced Lise to flee the country. Talk about scientific perseverance! The duo’s work, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb, earned them the Nobel Prize in 1944.
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992): Barbara McClintock’s work with maize showed that genes could both travel around, within, and between cells, an idea that contradicted popular thinking at the time. Although Barbara’s work in genetics went ignored for years, she eventually earned vindication when she became the only woman to independently win the Nobel Prize in medicine (not as part of a team).
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994): As a secondary student in England, Dorothy Hodgkin was one of only two girls permitted in her chemistry class. Dorothy’s interest in science led her to enroll at Oxford, where she continued to study chemistry before going on to study X-ray Crystallography at Cambridge. Dorothy mapped the 3-dimensional structure of various molecules, including penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in 1964 and is the only woman named to the top 10 most illustrious members of Britain’s Royal Society.
Katherine Johnson (born 1918): Katherine Johnson is a woman who has loved numbers from the time she was a child. She excelled in school and started college at West Virginia State University at just 15 years old, graduating at 18 with a BS in mathematics. She was so gifted that one of her professors even created a class in analytic geometry just for her. She began her career in teaching, but ultimately applied for a position with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s predecessor). At the time, women were expected to quietly do their work and not ask questions. As you can imagine, this did not sit well with Katherine. Her inquisitive disposition and brilliance in math earned her a spot on the team formed when President Kennedy announced his intentions to put a man on the moon. Her calculations were responsible for determining the trajectory of the first landing in 1969.
Marissa Mayer (born 1975): Marissa Mayer had big dreams, right from the start. Originally planning to earn a pre-medicine degree at Stanford, she ultimately switched her degree from pediatric neuroscience to symbolic systems. She then earned an M.S. in Computer Science, specializing in Artificial Intelligence. By 1999 Mayer had gained notoriety as Google’s first female employee in 1999. Her work continues to play an integral role in the megalithic tech corporation’s unbelievable success, as her contributions led to the creation of many of the Google apps that we use on a daily basis: Google Maps, Street View, and Gmail among others. Mayer then became the president and CEO of Yahoo!, a move that pushed her net worth up to an estimated at $300 million. When she joined Yahoo! she was one of only 20 female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list.
While women have had difficulty breaking into many STEM fields in any large number in the past, the moment is opportune for a mass movement for a few self-evident reasons.
First, a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Labor put forth a highly compelling case, projecting that over 50% of new job growth in the coming years will require STEM degrees.
Second, and related to that first point, obtaining a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math is typically a strong indicator of future financial success. STEM careers tend to have significantly higher starting and mid-level salaries when compared with non-STEM jobs.
Beyond the arguments for job security and the financial arguments, we could also point out that STEM-related fields actually suffer due to their lack of women. Take, for example, a field like engineering, where employees in the field often seek to devise practical solutions to issues that arise in everyday life. Since the overwhelming majority of people in the field are men (in fact, the number stands at close to 90%), work done in this domain lacks the experience, perspective, and creativity of half the population.
Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and former Dean of Engineering at Princeton University, who spoke with Forbes on this issue in 2012, summed up the point nicely by saying, “You need diverse perspective to get the best solutions.” You can the full article here, and see more college rankings of interest to women in STEM as well.
Given the historic underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, many schools across the country offer programs for high school girls so that they can gain first-hand experience and learn from successful female pioneers. While we only have space to list a few examples, be sure to see what is available in your area. An incredible number of universities across the United States offer similar summer programs, but you’ll never know unless you look them up and apply!
This six-week summer program gives high school girls opportunities to receive mentorship, attend classes, lectures, and take field trips. Participants commute to internship sites for 4.5 weeks, where they collaborate with researchers on a project and write a final paper detailing what they have learned.
The University of Michigan offers a range of summer programs for girls in 8th-12th grade, including RobotC for Girls, Girls in Science and Engineering (GISE), Genes in Diseases and Symptoms (GIDAS) Program-Computational Biology Research, and the GIDAS Computational Biology Camp.
This four-week summer program is limited to high school girls who have completed the 11th grade and have a strong track record in math and science, but lack experience in engineering or computer science. The program is highly competitive; MIT only selects 60 students nationwide each year to participate.
Founded in 1997, the All Girls/All Math program is open to girls from 10th-12th grade. Participants work alongside female professors and grad students on research projects during one of two, week-long summer sessions.
Girls ages 10-15 get a chance to experience a one-of-a-kind summer camp that will immerse them in coding and webpage design while also developing their leadership skills and understanding of brand identity. A low student-instructor ratio (no more than eight students per instructor) means plenty of personal attention. Summer camp locations are available in California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
No matter how much or how little time you have left in high school, one of the best ways to facilitate your transition to college is by looking at college as an extension of your present academic work rather than as a new beginning. Even if you are unsure of what you want to study, start preparing for the next step by implementing strong time management strategies now – even during summer vacation. Learn to make the most of your time by striking a balance of work and play so that you have healthy habits to fall back on once you find yourself under the added stress of a college program.
As you approach your senior year, adopt a proactive strategy. Don’t sit around waiting for schools to reach out to you. To improve your odds at finding the best college to fit your goals, ask your high school advisor for guidance and advice. Maintain good relationships with teachers, coaches, and mentors who may be able to write letters of recommendation, and get in touch with your top college picks to verify that you have all of the items required for your application well in advance of the deadline.
It would also be a good idea to visit your top school choices in person to get a tour of the facilities, meet faculty members, and speak with current students about their own experiences. Before visiting, contact the school and inquire about sitting in on a class and/or overnight stays.
In addition to general practices, you might also benefit from specific tips geared toward STEM-focused programs. Engineering students, for example, will need to get used to completing a lot of hands-on assignments. Look for the opportunity to tackle some do-it-yourself projects, both so that you get comfortable working with your hands and so you have somewhat of a “portfolio” of ideas and accomplishments even before you start college classes. There are plenty of step-by-step guides on YouTube that can help you get started.
To get an early advantage, science students can spend time reviewing notes from past math classes and working through tough problems. U.S. News also cites Paul Goldbart, Dean of the College of Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology, who encourages science students to read up on practical, real life applications of science in dynamic situations. Of course, math students should also look over their past work, identifying weak spots and asking teachers for help if needed. Strengthening your foundational knowledge early on will do wonders for your ability to pick up new material in advanced courses.
Below we have listed some of the best undergraduate schools for women interested in STEM fields. We looked at rankings in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Geological/Earth Sciences, Mathematics, and Physics, as listed on College Factual. This website considers a number of factors in their methodology, from average graduate earnings to the resources a university devotes to a particular major. College Factual also considers accreditation and the strength of related majors – a reliable indication of a student’s ability to enjoy a comprehensive, interdisciplinary curriculum with quality across all major-related classes.
Since there was so much overlap between rankings, we’ve decided to include the 20 schools that made it onto the most lists. Schools like MIT and Cornell boast top rankings in a number of subjects, while Georgia Institute of Technology claims just one – but it does place 2nd on that list. Beyond that, we placed universities based on how good each of their individual rankings is. For example, a school with #1 and #2 rankings will be listed before a school with #8 and #9 rankings.
- 1st in Biology
- 1st in Computer Science
- 2nd in Physics
- 3rd in Mathematics
- 4th in Chemistry
- 4th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 4th in Engineering
- 6th in Chemistry
- 7th in Physics
- 7th in Mathematics
- 8th in Computer Science
- 9th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 2nd in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 4th in Biology
- 6th in Computer Science
- 10th in Chemistry
- 3rd in Chemistry
- 4th in Physics
- 5th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 9th in Computer Science
- 1st in Physics
- 1st in Chemistry
- 10th in Mathematics
- 1st in Mathematics
- 2nd in Computer Science
- 5th in Physics
- 3rd in Computer Science
- 8th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 9th in Mathematics
- 5th in Biology
- 6th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 9th in Chemistry
- 7th in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 9th in Biology
- 10th in Computer Science
- 1st in Engineering
- 2nd in Mathematics
- 2nd in Chemistry
- 3rd in Physics
- 2nd in Biology
- 5th in Chemistry
- 1st in Geological and Earth Sciences
- 8th in Physics
- 5th in Computer Science
- 5th in Mathematics
- 5th in Engineering
- 6th in Physics
- 4th in Computer Science
- 9th in Physics
- 6th in Biology
- 8th in Mathematics
- 6th in Mathematics
- 8th in Chemistry
- 4th in Mathematics
- 10th in Physics
- 2nd in Engineering
Even if you think you can’t afford to go to one of the nation’s top undergraduate colleges, don’t dismiss the idea! There are plenty of scholarships available specifically to women interested in math, science, and technology, and some of these awards can offset the cost of tuition significantly. Of course, this is just a small sampling of potential scholarships. A quick Google search and you’ll realize that the opportunities are practically endless!
Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize for Excellence in Mathematics by an Undergraduate Woman
Requirements: Enrollment as college undergraduate; U.S. citizenship or a U.S. school address; submit a letter of nomination, school transcript, and applicable supporting materials.
Society of Women Engineers Scholarships (Various Scholarships Available)
Requirements: (For incoming freshmen) Enrollment in an ABET-accredited engineering, computing, or technology program; minimum (unweighted) 3.5 GPA in high school; submit high school transcript, letter of acceptance from an ABET-accredited institution, and resume.
Alcoa Chuck McClane Scholarship
Winners receive a $10,000 scholarship and a year of mentorship during their freshman year.
Requirements: Completion of a Gold Award project dealing with STEM-related interests.
Gamers in Real Life (G.I.R.L.) Scholarship
Winners receive a $5,000 scholarship and an internship with Daybreak Games.
Requirements: Enrollment in an undergrad field related to video games for the duration of 2015-2016 academic year; minimum 3.0 GPA; legal U.S. residency; submit two pieces of concept art or game feature in coding of applicant’s choosing.
Fifty renewable scholarships awarded each year with the potential to receive $100,000 over four years.
Requirements: Must be a high school student or graduate planning to enroll at a four-year post-secondary institution on a full-time basis; plan to pursue a STEM-related major (full list available on website); show interest in a career in the automotive industry; demonstrate participation and leadership in local community.
HP Helion OpenStack® Scholarship
Winners receive $10,000, mentorship, and the possibility to intern with HP.
Requirements: Enrollment in an information systems or computer science program; develop a project using OpenStack and/or Cloud Foundry technology; submit CV/resume and applicable materials.
Palantir Scholarship for Women in Engineering
Winners receive $1,500-$10,000 and a trip to Palantir headquarters.
Requirements: Sophomore status in undergraduate institution; show interest in STEM-related field; eligibility to work in the U.S.; submit resume, transcripts, and an essay.
The Clare Boothe Luce Program
Winners receive funds to cover their final two years’ worth of expenses for undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board.
Requirements: Declared science or engineering major; show interest in future career in the field.
Overall, careers in STEM are in much higher demand than jobs in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Furthermore, STEM degrees are actually highly versatile, allowing you to find work in nearly any area that requires analysis, calculations, or technological savvy. For example, some students earn physics degrees as a way to prove their problem-solving prowess – a coveted skill that opens the door to careers in IT, computer science, engineering, defense, intelligence, and even business. Although we couldn’t possibly list all your options here, we’ve included a small sampling of potential career paths, including their average starting salaries.
Median starting salary: $88,700
Petroleum engineers are in high demand as the United States continues to expand its domestic drilling operations. Petroleum engineers are very well remunerated as top earners can make close to $300,000 annually. The field is projected to grow by 17% from 2010 to 2020.
Computer and Information Research Scientist
Median starting salary: $58,800
Computer and information research scientists work on the cutting edge of technology by developing new technologies and adapting present systems for new uses. In most cases, aspiring research scientists must earn a PhD before landing a job in the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is projected to grow by 15% from 2012-2022.
Business Intelligence Analyst
Median starting salary: $56,700
Business intelligence (BI) analysts feature critically in any major corporation’s activities, as their analytical skills help steer decisions for those in upper management. Analysts must have knowledge of specific technologies (i.e. SQL, Cognos, etc.) and a thorough understanding of data storage structures. According to Pay Scale, women make up approximately a third of the field and job satisfaction is generally high.
Median starting salary: $55,100
Demand is sky-high for software developers, the men and women who develop computer programs, operating systems, and applications. With over a million people currently employed in the field as of 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the economy will add an additional 222,600 software developer jobs between 2012 and 2022.
Median Starting Salary: $61,700
Responsible for designing equipment and processes for large-scale manufacturing, chemical engineers create solutions for issues involved in the production of (among other products) drugs, food, fuel, and chemicals. Forbes highlights chemical engineering as one of the highest-paid jobs available to STEM majors, although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field will grow more slowly than other science and tech industries in the next decade.
Congressional Research Service
White House Blog
Economics and Statistics Administration
U.S. News & World Report
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Wall Street Journal
Marissa Mayer Biography
10 Best Paying Jobs in STEM
Bureau of Labor Statistics
About the Author:
Iris Stone began her writing career when she started working as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her freelance business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and graduates’ careers. Her interests actually span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist! Check out her Google+ Profile.