Demand For STEM Workers Has Skyrocketed, but Diversity is Still an Issue

Boosting Women's Confidence in STEM: Encouraging Early Education and Career Pathways

In recent years, demand for qualified workers in STEM fields has exploded. In 2021, including both genders, there were almost 10 million workers in STEM occupations according to the US Department of Labor. That total is projected to grow by 11% by 2031, which is a rate more than two times faster than the total for all occupations.

Currently women make up 50% of all STEM jobs, slightly higher than their share in the overall workforce. However, women’s representation in STEM fields varies widely, from an incredible 74% of all health-related jobs to only 25% of jobs in computer occupations with even less representation when it comes to engineering jobs at 15%.

“There's a lot of positivity around being smart and trying really hard and, you know, doing well in school”, said Karthiga Vezhavendan, Senior Product Manager at ecobee. “I grew up in Singapore and Singapore has a very different education system where you actually get tests and exams from when you're in kindergarten. But I came back from kindergarten with an A+ on my test, and my mom was in tears of joy. That's when I think I truly understood that, wow, it pays to be smart. It's something that people look up to in a way. I think for me it reiterated that there was no stigma of being a nerd or like, you know, being intelligent, being uncool.”

Vezhavendan spoke with Built By Girls for the video series “How I Started in STEM” to discuss her career making smart home products that create a more sustainable world while giving her insight into the importance of teaching and encouraging early STEM education specifically to young girls.

African American female teenager Student working on electronics robotics in the technology course
African American female teenager Student working on electronics robotics in the technology course

Teaching STEM in Schools

The rate at which high school girls are taking Computer Science (CS) AP exams since 2016 has increased 331% yet only 3 states require CS for graduation as of 2021. In fact, the State of Girls Who Code Report 2019 found that girls who participate in computer science courses in high school are ten times more likely to major in it in college.

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) finds that 56% of Advanced Placement test takers in 2021 were girls but only 30% of AP Computer Science testers during the same time were female. This correlates with a similar stat citing women earning 57% of bachelor’s degrees in 2020 but only 22% of Computer & Information Science bachelor degrees in that same year.

With 4.7 million open computing related jobs in the U.S. expected by 2030, we need to start thinking about changing our approach that is resulting in the loss of qualified women from working and succeeding in STEM fields in such a short period of time. We need to work to find ways to increase interest and confidence in women so that they can see a path to a career in STEM fields including those in computing and engineering.

“I think very early in my career, I was looking to other people to give me that validation, very much like in school, how your teacher tells you that you're doing a good job, or you know, you got a 90% on your test”, said Vezhavendan. “I was looking for external validation that I was doing a good job, and it took me a really long time to actually figure out that I need to believe that I'm doing a good job first, and that I need to build up my own confidence.”

The Case for STEM

The easiest case to sell the next generation on why they should pursue careers in STEM is simple - money. On average, STEM careers pay far more than non-STEM careers.

According to Pew Research, in 2019, median earnings for full-time, year-round workers ages 25 and older both male and female, in a STEM job were about $77,400. The comparable median for workers in non-STEM occupations was $46,900.

And while yes, men still make more than women on average even in STEM fields, the American Association of University Women says that computer science has one of the smallest pay gaps between male and female professionals, with women earning 94% of what men earn.

Currently, women comprise 48% of all workers in the life sciences (such as the biological or agricultural sciences), up from 34% in 1990. The share of women in the physical sciences (such as astronomy, physics or chemistry) also rose, from 22% in 1990 to 40% as of 2019, the most recent year data is available.

“The world itself, it's like roughly 50% male, 50% female. So there's no reason why our workplaces shouldn't look like that too, especially in STEM”, said Vezhavendan. “And if we're seeing that inequality, it means that something's wrong and we need to be more supportive to help get to that equal representation.”