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STEM Report Points to a Means of Economic Security for Low-Income Women

By Margaret Kran-Annexstein

Job opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are some of the fastest-growing industries in the country yet women’s presence in STEM education at the community college level is dropping. Between 2000–2001 and 2008–2009, the number of women earning associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased by 25.7 percent. Meanwhile, jobs in STEM fields are expected to nearly double by 2018.

A new IWPR report, Increasing Opportunities for Low-Income Women and Student Parents in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math at Community Colleges, proposes solutions for bridging this training and jobs gap for women. The report addresses obstacles faced by women in STEM fields, and how educational institutions and organizations can help women to overcome these challenges.

It is important to encourage all women, but particularly low-income women and student parents, to pursue STEM fields. STEM degrees can be a link to better economic security because they lead to jobs in fields with better pay and narrower wage gaps—a 14 percent wage gap exists in STEM jobs versus 21 percent in non-STEM jobs.

From the report:

Women at the community college level are more likely than men to enroll in educational fields and training for jobs in traditionally female occupations—such as child care workers, health aids, or administrative assistants—with low starting pay, flat wage trajectories, and poor benefits (Hegewisch et al. 2010; Negrey et al. 2001). By contrast, women who train for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields—fields typically dominated by men—see strong economic returns.

I always liked math and science in elementary and high school. However, somewhere along the way, I abandoned STEM education, just like many other women and girls. In this difficult economy, why do so many women steer away from fields that offer so many job opportunities? During the release event for the STEM report, Roberto Rodriguez, a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said that women and girls drop out or avoid STEM education because of a “lack of role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility that exists in STEM fields.”

Sara Manzano-Díaz, who also spoke at the report release event, focuses a lot of her attention on the encouragement of young girls in her role as director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. She sees that “education is the great equalizer” and by becoming role models and mentors for girls, we can encourage them to pursue STEM degrees and pave their way to fulfilling careers.

The report outlines steps that community colleges could be taking in order to recruit and retain women, especially mothers who face more challenges in completing their degrees and need flexibility in their study schedules. Increasing the number of student parents studying STEM fields can have lasting effects—not only on the quality of life of a graduate once they leave school, but also on their children. According to her research, author of the report Cynthia Costello found that children whose mothers pursue postsecondary education are more likely to receive college degrees themselves.

Women have made such huge leaps in education equality and this makes their minority presence in STEM fields of study all the more shocking.

The reality that women are highly underrepresented in STEM fields is distressing because those fields are in need of skilled workers in a shifting economy. It is also a missed opportunity to incorporate diverse perspectives in a growing industry.

“We need… more girls who believe they can grow up to invent and to discover,” said Rodriguez at the release event. “Invention and discovery in engineering and science is creative act. It benefits from a multitude of viewpoint…So without diversity we are paying inherently an opportunity cost here because that’s a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, ultimately in constraints that are not understood.”

Margaret Kran-Annexstein is a Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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