If you want to have a chance to win, you have to play the game, but when it comes to “STEM” careers (science, technology, engineering, and math), the majority of women are still not playing.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, while women hold almost half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs — and that percentage has not increased greatly in the past few decades, despite an increase in the number of college-educated women who are now in the overall workforce. Why? Because women hold a very low share of STEM undergraduate degrees, particularly in engineering, according to the report.

In addition, women with a STEM degree are less likely than men to work in a STEM occupation and are more likely to instead choose to work in education or healthcare, according to the report, despite lower disparity in earnings between men and women in STEM careers versus other fields. Women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs.

The Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education of the New Jersey State Employment Education and Training Commission is seeking to help close the gender gap in STEM careers. It will host its sixth annual NJ Women in Science and Technology Workforce Summit on Friday, June 15, at 8:30 a.m. at the Mercer County Community College Conference Center. Cost: free. Prior registration is recommended and can be made by calling 609-633-0605. About 200 women are expected at the conference.

“Engage, Inspire, Connect, and Collaborate” is the theme of this year’s conference and a wide variety of speakers, workshops, and panel discussions are planned.

The day will begin with a welcome address by Dianne Mills McKay, chair of the SETC Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education, and a discussion on national initiatives by Grace Protos, regional administrator, Women’s Bureau, of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The keynote speaker is Helen Berman, a member of the Board of Governors and a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rutgers University. Workshops topics include curriculum, entrepreneurship, mentoring, and STEM and social purpose.

This year the conference will put more focus on gaining feedback from the participants, according to Judy Formalarie, one of the planners of the day-long event. An employee of the council, she has been instrumental in the development of the conference throughout its six-year history.

“Each year we develop a report on the state of STEM careers in New Jersey based on the conference. Obviously, that report is heavily influenced by the speakers and their topics. This year we want to make sure that all of the participants have a chance to speak and give us their feedback.”

One of the many reasons that few women go into STEM careers is a lack of knowledge by parents, other family members, and educators, says Formalarie.

She uses herself as an example. “I graduated from high school in 1971 and I thought I had only a few choices: get married or become a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary.”

Though her mother was in healthcare, she chose teaching. “I was a teenager, and I’d heard all my life that I was going to be a nurse like my mother. Of course, I didn’t want that. I’d watched her come in from midnight shifts and heard her talk at the dinner table about all of the problems she had.”

Formalarie received a bachelor’s degree in education from East Stroudsburg State College in Pennsylvania and got a teaching job in upstate New York. She got married a few years later, and her husband was transferred to New Jersey. Formalerie suddenly needed a new career. “It was a fluke that I ended up working for the Department of Labor,” she says. “I went to the employment office to check things out, and they sent me there to interview for a job.”

It was a fortunate fluke. She has become passionate about helping women in the workforce.

Porous Profession. For women, says Formalerie, STEM careers are “porous careers.” It’s as if you took a water pipe and drilled it full of holes. At each step, more and more women fall through those holes.

It starts in middle school and high school, where young girls take fewer math and science classes than the boys. Because they are not as prepared in high school, they are less likely to study for a STEM career in college.

Those who do get a college degree in the sciences are more likely to choose teaching over working in industry, Formalerie notes, putting them immediately in the lower-paying end of a science career. Those who do choose industry are more likely than men to drop out to raise a family, and most never return.

“Many women believe that once they have taken a few years off to raise a family, they are too far behind to go back to a STEM career. That’s not necessarily the case, but the perception is there, so many never try to return,” she says.

Importance of Mentoring. One of the most important things that women already in STEM professions can do is to mentor other women, according to Formalerie. No matter what age group a woman is interested in working with, there are mentoring opportunities.

“We need to be working with girls as early as middle school,” she says. There are programs in schools through the Girl Scouts and other organizations to work with young girls. Girls in college also need female role models to help them learn more about job opportunities available to them in the sciences, and once these young women are in the workforce, they need mentors to help them to learn and get ahead.

Looking for Social Purpose. One of the panel discussions will center on social purpose in STEM careers. “Women, in particular, are interested in having a career that will benefit society,” says Formalerie.

“A woman will put her eye to a microscope for eight hours a day because she understands that she is working for a cure for cancer or another disease,” she says. “Women want to do good in the world, and STEM careers are an excellent way to do that. One of the ways to interest more women in these careers is to show them the social purpose.”

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