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There Continues To Be A Lack Of Representation In The STEM Field

A large number of females do not remain within a STEM role for an extended period.

01/09/2017 08:45 SAST | Updated 01/09/2017 08:45 SAST
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Roughly three years ago I made the bold decision to move away from a six-year role in the operations environment, for a role in an office setting. Not only would my immediate work environment change from an office in a workshop, within the operations environment, to one in a shiny and clean corporate office building; but I would [more importantly] be free of the shackles of both standbys and shutdowns! -- both of which involved me being called out to work either after hours or on weekends and working extended hours.

The prospects of my new career path filled me with a 40 to 60 ratio of excitement versus fear. I informed a close friend about my plan and her reaction only increased the fear factor and magnitude of the decision I was making. "What?!... but you studied all those years... and you're now leaving that all behind! Are you sure about this?"

She was right. I was moving away from the technical role of engineering to now pursue a career in business development. Even though the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] field offers higher status and higher pay than most professions; overall statistics still show a lack of female representation (Casey, B., 2012).

A large number of females do not remain within a STEM role for an extended period and exhibit tendencies to move out of the workforce entirely or into non-core STEM related occupations (Bureau of National Affairs, 2013). I was now one of those contributing to that stat.

When the world needs more women in STEM; there I was, moving out of engineering. Was I betraying the sisterhood and all those girls who needed to see more role models working in STEM? Taking an "office-job" definitely seemed like I was a total sellout and a fraud.

STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations.

So why did I do it?

There are many reasons as to why most women move away from STEM roles, these ranges from gender disparities in wages, training and promotional roles, psychological barriers or a lack of flexibility during child-bearing years. My own reasons though were threefold:

  • I didn't seem to get the same career satisfaction from the work I was performing as an engineer,
  • I had two miracle babies [a story for another day, I promise] who I wanted to be present for, especially in their formative years and
  • I wanted a more holistic understanding of my role as an engineer.

But even with these reasons, I was not fully at peace with turning my back on the STEM degree I had worked so hard to earn. I embarked on my MBA journey in parallel with my career change. I saw my research topic as a means of closure to a burning issue and so began one of the most rewarding journeys I've ever embarked on. I interviewed men and other women who had left core-STEM roles for non-core STEM roles. The majority did not regret their decision.

This post is not written with the intention to keep you in STEM [if you have left] or to convince you to go back to a core-STEM role... I want to tell you that having a STEM degree gives you the opportunity to pursue pretty much anything you desire.

An office-job has its own set of difficulties and should never be viewed with lesser importance than that of a woman's role in an operations environment. My logic and reasoning from days in engineering are valued in my current role. Each has its purpose and each is essential to the functioning of a business. 'STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, regardless of whether they work in STEM or non-STEM occupations' (Noonan, 2017: 1).

Watch a woman start with an engineering degree and transition. Therein is evolution.

A STEM career at any point in a woman's life should not only be related to how many years she spent in a field but the thinking and changes she makes thereafter. It is a foundation which not only earns you respect but also automatically makes you part of the sisterhood. What is a sisterhood in essence? It is a network, a community of women with a commonality.

We can all attest to the hours we have spent labouring through tasks we didn't completely understand, as a means to an end. Many can relate to the feelings of doubt that would wash over us as one resounding thought echoed in the back of our minds, "what if the ones, who advised us otherwise, were right?" Ultimately, we can all agree on one fact, you don't know what you don't know; the magnitude of the impact of our decision to continue in this line of work.

The STEM gap is a reality and there are several initiatives to encourage young girls to consider STEM subjects and eventually a career. However, one of the biggest deterrent factors for women entering STEM fields is a lack of role models. If those women who have travelled the gauntlet can band together and become role models, we can still bridge the STEM gap.

We need to own our stories, share it with our sisters; to allow us to inspire future generations and start the conversations which matter. When we become ambassadors, we show that educating a girl in STEM gives her the very tools to succeed beyond her barriers, beyond her stereotypes.

Watch a woman start with an engineering degree and transition. Therein is evolution, not just as a person but as a woman of STEM. When we stand as examples to our daughters, making the choice to enter STEM becomes easier. Who else would you have them learn it from?