Colorado's Challenge: Getting More Women and Girls in STEM

It’s been nearly 25 years since the toy company Mattel received extensive criticism for producing a talking Barbie doll that lamented, “Math class is tough.” The toy, and many other aspects of our popular culture, have consistently reinforced the idea that girls simply don’t like or aren’t good at math.

In the years since, many have fought the stereotype that women’s strengths do not align with math, in addition to science, technology, and engineering (referred to as STEM).

Fast forward to the present, when Colorado boasts the most per capita listings of STEM jobs in the nation and the second highest openings of entry-level STEM jobs. However, as these sectors blossom, there are not nearly enough young Coloradans pursuing STEM in school, especially girls. This is highlighted by the fact that Colorado’s STEM industries have made notably slow progress in recruiting women to fill these positions. While women make up 46% of Colorado’s workforce, they represent less than a third of all STEM workers in our state.

Our partners at the Women’s Foundation of Colorado recently released Gender Equity in Colorado’s STEM Industries: The Case for Focused Workforce Investment, a report that examines the issues contributing to the dearth of women in STEM-related occupations in Colorado. The report also provides solutions and tools for encouraging more women and girls to pursue STEM via education programming and improved workplace conditions to increase the diversity of talent.

The Challenges

Colorado students and graduates cannot afford to overlook STEM courses and careers. Similarly, Colorado STEM employers need the local and homegrown talent to fill these jobs. The trifecta of benefits of STEM jobs – more job openings in Colorado’s growing STEM sectors, higher starting salaries, and a variety of career pathways – make them an ideal pathway to the middle class and a key opportunity for continued growth in our state. Despite this:

  1. Women are notably underrepresented as graduates trained in STEM occupations, and in some cases have lost ground in recent years. While women have made significant gains in some STEM fields over the years, such as biological sciences, progress has been slow since the 1960s. In some fields, such as computing, women have actually declined as a share of the workforce (27 percent in 1960 to 26 percent in 2013). This is doubly concerning as, according to the study, engineering and computing jobs make up more than 80 percent of STEM jobs. It’s important to note that these disparities are even more pronounced for women of color.
  2. Retaining Women Once They Enter STEM Occupations Remains a Challenge. When women do pursue STEM careers they often experience unconscious and conscious biases in the workplace that impact their decision to stay in those careers beyond entry- or mid-level. According to the report, “nearly half of senior leaders in science, engineering, and technology companies believe that a women would never achieve a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing a woman is.” These barriers, including lower salaries than their male counterparts, result in women leaving STEM industries at a much higher rate than their male peers. For example, in computing careers, women are twice as likely to leave their positions as men.

The Solutions

Colorado companies cannot afford to overlook attracting women into their STEM talent pool. As the demand for STEM talent grows at nearly twice the rate for non-STEM jobs, this is not simply a moral issue, it is also an economic issue. The Gender Equity Report identifies several solutions for tackling our STEM gender gap:

  1. Developing effective STEM education programs is essential. To increase the number of women and girls pursuing STEM, high-quality education programming – in both K-12 and higher education – is key, and it can’t happen early enough. For girls and other underrepresented groups, early exposure to STEM experiences is a key factor in deciding to pursue STEM coursework and careers. A study by the Girl Scouts of America found that girls who are interested in STEM have had greater exposure to STEM fields, such as knowing someone in a STEM career or receiving encouragement to pursue STEM from their parents. The business community can support our education system to increase exposure. Examples include providing expertise on real-world problems a STEM career professional could solve, participating in mentorships, and providing internships.
  2. Actively supporting and promoting diversity in the workplace. Building inclusive and diverse workplaces benefit both companies and employees. As business leaders, we know human capital is our greatest asset. Research has shown that companies often experience improved operational and financial performance, enhanced company reputation, increased innovation and company performance, and decreased turnover when they “hire and retain a more diverse and inclusive workforce.” The report provides specific recommendations and resources for companies to attract and retain underrepresented talent, specifically women.

Colorado is experiencing explosive growth and our STEM industries are booming. As business leaders, education advocates, and civic leaders, it is in our best interest to make sure that all Coloradans can access, participate, and thrive in our high-skill fields. The Gender Equity in Colorado’s STEM Industries report makes important recommendations and provides valuable tools for businesses to lead the charge in ensuring women can continue to be valuable contributors to our STEM companies and economy. We’ve evolved from the “Math class is tough” Barbie to a GoldieBlox engineer doll – a shift that took 25 years. Let’s not take any longer to build our future engineers, our computer scientists, and our biotechnicians.

photo of
Colorado Succeeds