The number of STEM jobs grew three times faster than non-STEM jobs over the past 10 years and will continue to outperform the market, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Not only is the field growing faster, but it pays better, too. STEM workers earn 26% more than their non-STEM counterparts. The STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are driving innovation and economic growth, and offer some of the most attractive career opportunities.

Unfortunately, women are significantly underrepresented in STEM. While women make up almost half of the U.S. Labor Force and earn almost 60% of all bachelor’s degrees, they represent a mere quarter of STEM employees. And when women do pursue STEM careers, they are least likely to choose Engineering and Computer Sciences, the two highest earning majors for all new graduates per the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ most recent survey.

This gender divide is a complicated problem driven by many factors. Catalyst reports that women working in STEM cite: 1) lack of role models, 2) feeling like an outsider, and 3) unclear evaluation criteria as the main barriers to their career advancement. While continued attention to addressing these and other hurdles in the work environment is critical, the National Science Foundation reports that the gender gap starts early, with high school boys almost five times more likely to take an engineering class than girls. This suggests it isn’t enough to focus solely on the work environment.

After years of watching high school girls with strong math aptitude shun the Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) class, Elk Grove High School leaders experimented with an innovative approach. Associate Principal Kyle Burritt pitched the idea to create an all-female IED class and actively recruit talented young women. The goal is to build a more welcoming environment to encourage young women to explore the possibility of an engineering career. Engineering instructor Patrick McGing was charged with leading the class, one of the first all-female engineering courses in Illinois. They piloted the program last year with 13 girls, expanding to 18 this year. In less than two years they have tripled the number of girls trying Engineering, climbing from less than 9% of IED students in 2013-14 to almost 30% this year. The most common reservation to the program is the fear that young women will miss a “real-world” experience in an all-girls environment, but the class has proven to be an effective bridge for many young women who wouldn’t otherwise have taken the chance. Once the young women build self-confidence and recognize that they can succeed in engineering, they are more likely to take higher level co-ed engineering classes. McGing reports that of the 6 girls registered for Civil Engineering and Architecture next year, 5 of them are from his all-female introductory course. Even those young women who decide engineering isn’t for them gain valuable experience in breaking out of their comfort zones and visualizing themselves in non-traditional roles. These life skills will serve them well in whatever paths they pursue.

Elk Grove High School hopes that one day there will be no need for an all-female engineering class. Until then, they’ll keep paving the way for young women to join the exciting and lucrative world of STEM.

By Marcia V. Perkins
Marcia Perkins photo

After a 23 year career in commercial finance, Marcia V. Perkins co-founded Gathered Wisdom Partners to accelerate success for individuals and companies by helping women achieve their full potential. Gathered Wisdom Partners conducted over 175 interviews and developed a model based on the research. They provide consulting services, workshops, speaking engagements, and coaching. Their workshops include Lead Yourself to help women carve their own path to success, and Lead Others to coach leaders on how to fully leverage their female talent.

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