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Ted Rayburn: State's STEM suffers a baffling gender gap

December 4, 2016
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Ted Rayburn 11/19/15. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

The road to changing attitudes about gender in the workforce is inexplicably long and bumpy. And nowhere is it more baffling than in STEM.

A decade's worth of research was recently cited in a report by the Women's Foundation of Colorado and its STEM Coalition.

Key findings: While women make up 46 percent of the state's overall workforce, they hold less than a third of STEM jobs.

Why?

There are a number of possibilities for this, some obvious and some perhaps not so obvious. Overt sexism comes to mind, of course, but there seems to be far more of the subtler kind, which begins early for girls as they are steered away from science, technology, engineering and math.

The steering is from parents, grandparents, teachers or other authority figures, either because they cannot see it any other way or because they fear the child will be stigmatized as the only girl in a class full of boys.

Either way, the women-to-be suffer - but so does our whole state.

First, STEM jobs are among the best-paying (averaging $86,000 a year) with more opportunities for advancement, in a country with widespread pay disparity between men and women. The fewer the number of women who enter STEM fields, the more likely the pay gap will stay the same or worsen.

Then there is the fact that there are so many STEM job openings that it is foolish to make it harder for girls and women to compete. There are roughly 21/2 entry-level STEM jobs in Colorado for every four-year college graduate. You would think that, if only for that reason, we would work harder to get girls into STEM classes and women into these professions. How is it better to leave good jobs open, hurting productivity, or let the best jobs go to out-of-state applicants?

This should prompt a real push to get women into STEM. Instead, as the Women's Foundation report noted, women who are in STEM jobs are leaving the field more often than their male counterparts.

Which reminds me of the aforementioned stigma issue for young girls. How else do you explain women leaving? And I don't accept that it is the stereotype about women choosing family over career. Think of it: Would you give up that sort of salary when you have children to raise?

No, I think the Women's Foundation hit upon it in research findings that 44 percent of senior managers, male and female, "believe that a woman would never achieve a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing."

Disbelief is nothing more than an excuse not to grow, to innovate or be productive. Companies that close their eyes to the potential of their employees may cruise along for a while on past success, but they have peaked. So again, I am baffled, because I think of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as callings that absolutely rely upon open minds and willingness to take chances. They should be leaders in gender equity.

I'm glad to see, at least, that the STEM Coalition consists of some forward-thinking Colorado companies such as Arrow Electronics, Stantec and others who can set an example and share best practices.

Clearly, there is no time to waste.

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Send Gazette Business Editor Ted Rayburn your ideas on the local economy; phone 636-0194 or email ted.rayburn@gazette.com.

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