Women in STEM: Progresses Made and Opportunities for Growth

Earthzine’s Women in STEM theme addresses the gender gap in STEM fields, profiles the work of scientists and highlights the importance of mentoring the next generation.

Dr. Hilary Smith Risser works with girls at the Create Math summer camp at Montana Tech in Butte, Montana, this summer to use mathematics to create origami models. Image Credit: David Nolt, Montana Tech

Dr. Hilary Smith Risser works with girls at the Create Math summer camp at Montana Tech in Butte, Montana, this summer to use mathematics to create origami models. Image Credit: David Nolt, Montana Tech

I am honored to serve as the guest editor for this special issue of Earthzine, focused on women in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) fields.

Despite the increase in educational opportunities for women in the last century, women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields. Although women are half of the college-educated workforce, they hold less than a third of the jobs in STEM.

While it is clear from historical employment and educational data that a gender gap exists in STEM fields, the causes of this gap are less clear. Some researchers theorize that women opt out of science before and during college because they see their identity as fundamentally opposed to what society perceives as the ideal scientist. Others theorize that women opt out of science because of pervasive sexism present in STEM fields during schooling and in industry.

This issue features several articles that describe ways to overcome the barriers for women and girls in STEM fields. These include articles on mentoring as a way for woman to overcome the “imposter phenomenon,” building community to advance careers and catalyze institutional change, and showcasing the lives of women scientists through social media.

While some of the articles in the issue address how to make overall gaps in STEM persistence smaller, others celebrate the accomplishments of women who have made significant contributions to STEM fields. Some of the stories of pioneering women that are featured in this issue, like that of Ada Lovelace, may be familiar to you. Some, like those of Williamina Fleming, Maria Uhle, Molly Macauley, Claire Parkinson, and Les Trois Mousquetaires, may be less familiar.

I feel fortunate to have been born in a time and place where it was possible for me to be a woman, a mother and a mathematician. My grandmother was born in the United States before women were awarded the right to vote. My mother was the first woman in her family to graduate from college. At the time, the university she attended had many rules, including a curfew, that were applied unequally to female and male students. When I attended the same university 30 years later, I was subject to the same rules as my male peers. The three generations of women in my family had radically different opportunities in our education and professional lives. There has been much progress over the last century to celebrate.

However, there is still progress to be made. As a mother of two daughters, I feel a pressing responsibility to continue the work in expanding opportunities for women in STEM. I hope the articles in this special issue give you a glimpse into the good work that has already been accomplished in closing the STEM gap and an understanding of how you can contribute to the work that has yet to be done.

Hilary Smith Risser, Ph.D., is the mathematics department head at Montana Tech of the University of Montana, and guest editor for Earthzine’s quarterly theme, Women in STEM.

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