Women Fighting Stereotypes and Systemic Discrimination in STEM

Women Fighting Stereotypes and Systemic Discrimination in STEM

While half the world is female, fewer than 30 percent of the world’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals are women.


9 - 12+


Earth Science, Engineering, Mathematics


Women in a Science Lab

While half the world is female, less than 30 percent of the world’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals are women.

Photograph by Lightfield Studios Inc./Alamy Stock Photo
While half the world is female, less than 30 percent of the world’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals are women.

Science is the systematicevidence-based study of how the natural world works. Presumably, this objective pursuit would be free of bias and welcoming to those with the desire and talent to pursue it, but that has not always been true for women. While about half the human population is female, fewer than 30 percent of the world’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals are women.

Women with research positions in academic STEM do their jobs well. They publish at a similar rate as men with their research having roughly the same impact, according to this study by UNESCO : However, women’s STEM careers are often less productive than men’s STEM careers because women’s careers are shorter and they have higher dropout rates, according to the March 2020 paper. Each year, women have nearly a 20 percent higher chance of leaving academia than men do.

Gender representation in STEM differs by field. Women often outnumber men in biological fields. However, men far outnumber women in physics, computer science, and engineering.

Like other male-dominated jobs in the United States, science and engineering received a huge influx of women with the onset of World War II. With huge numbers of men away fighting, women were encouraged to enter spaces they had been excluded from. When the war ended and men returned to the work force, women were expected to leave the lab and the office. But some women fought to remain in STEM. American women in STEM justified their positions as assets to the nation as it fought the Cold War.

Fighting for their place in the world of STEM has been even tougher for Black and brown women. That is not to say that Black, Indigenous, and other women of color have not made their mark on science. Katherine Johnson, a Black woman, made the calculations to ensure U.S. astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth and returned safe. Sarah Al-Amiri led a team of fellow Arab women in placing an orbiter around Mars, making the United Arab Emirates just the fifth country to do so.

All too often these achievements are the exception, not the norm. Historically, there have been legal, social, and cultural barriers to entry and advancement in these fields. Studying and working in STEM has been traditionally marketed as men’s work. Systemic discrimination, unconscious bias, and sexual harassment can also prematurely ends women’s STEM careers.

In the United States, women are 47 percent of the employed civilian work force, but only 25 percent of the STEM work force. In the U.S., women of every ethnicity are underrepresented in STEM jobs, except for Asian women. Asian women make up 4.3 percent of STEM occupations while accounting for 2.8 percent of the employed work force. White women are about 32 percent of the work force, but about 17 percent of those working in STEM.

Those numbers are bleaker for Black and brown American women. Latinas comprise 6.7 percent of the work force, but just 1.7 percent of STEM jobs. Black women account for 6.0 percent of the work force and 2.2 percent of STEM occupations. Women who self-identified by other racial designations, such as Indigenous or Pacific Islander, were too few to be analyzed. A similar breakdown is seen with the attainment of STEM bachelor’s degrees with Black and Latina women earning fewer than their proportion of STEM degrees.

The U.S. is not exceptional with its lack of women in the STEM work force. Worldwide, women make up just over 29 percent of STEM researchers. There are just 17 nations where women make up the majority of STEM researchers.

As technology advances, more STEM professionals are sought out. Nations receive an economic boost with added STEM workers, making them appealing to governments. In the United States alone, STEM work accounts for 69 percent of the gross domestic product. This calculation includes many jobs that don’t require a college degree, like X-Ray technician.

The lack of women in STEM fields doesn’t just hurt society, but women themselves. STEM occupations are highly valued professions with higher salaries than other careers. Yet when compared to men, women in STEM are paid less.

The need is so high it often outpaces the ability of employers to fill them. Women of color are a huge part of the world’s people and talent pool. By underutilizing Black and brown women in these positions, their respective nations are losing out on their skills and perspective. Research shows upping diversity improves problem solving, which is a key to any STEM job.

NOTE: While we recognize neither sex nor gender is a binary, data used to study STEM and sex is limited to such. Thus, this story will be using these limited terms.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Production Manager
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 26, 2024

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