More women needed in STEM

BY Rachel LeBlanc

Rachel LeBlanc is the assistant vice president at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the vice president of AUVSI New England.

Women make up half of the American labor force, yet there are fields, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), where women continue to be vastly underrepresented.

In Massachusetts, less than one-third of STEM employees are female. The good news is woman have no shortage of possibilities in STEM. Massachusetts consistently ranks as the No. 1 state in various technology economic impact indexes. Promising opportunities in Massachusetts can be found at companies and institutions focused on robotics and autonomous systems. The New England Chapter of AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) boasts 350 member organizations in the region, ranging from startups to global companies and research institutions. AUVSI members reflect a significant portion of the estimated $427-billion annual regional technology market share.

Unfortunately, it has long been an uphill battle to attract women to STEM. Once they are involved, there is often another uphill battle to keep them here. It seems a lot of the barriers to women in STEM come from basic stereotypes. Men and women have different life experiences contributing to how they approach situations. When women are not adequately represented, we miss out on their voice, their experiences, and the different perspective they bring.

Organizations like Girls Who Code, which works to close the increasing gender gap among computer scientists, are reaching girls at younger ages. LEGO's recent Women of NASA set has been a top-seller, not only spreading awareness of the successful females in NASA and by extension STEM, but helping society become more aware.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute is shaping the next generation of women in STEM beginning in our girls-only K-12 summer programs, such as Camp Reach and Innovations in Bioengineering. These efforts carry over into the collegiate realm as WPI provides professional development and leadership programs for its female students, such as a salary negotiation workshops.

When women are missing from the ranks, they are missing in leadership. This means young women and entry-level employees are missing a female role model manager. Having women in leadership helps bring in other women; it naturally builds a network creating gender diversity.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in new STEM jobs will outpace overall growth in occupations by 7 percent over the next 10 years. By 2022, at least 3 million STEM employees will be needed in the U.S. solely to replace the current workers in the field.

How do we do that? We start small, start local, and stick with it. Companies have made a commitment to hiring women, only to see it fail to produce immediate results and the commitment falls to the wayside. Needing more women in STEM fields is not a flash in the pan. This need is real, and it is not going away.