OREM — There's an upward trend of Utah women completing STEM-related studies, but researchers say they are still underrepresented in the state's STEM labor pool and their completion rates are lagging behind the national average.
According to a Utah Women in STEM Education research brief released Thursday by the Utah Women & Leadership Project, Utah women make up 44% of the state's workforce and their numbers in science, technology, engineering and math fields remain "particularly low."
Nationwide, women comprise 47% of the workforce and 28% of the tech workforce.
The research brief, which serves as an update to the group's 2013 study, surprised researchers by the lack of growth of women in STEM education, especially after efforts and initiatives have increased to create a pipeline between women and STEM career opportunities.
Cheryl Hanewicz, co-author of the research brief, said between 2012 and 2017 Utah women with STEM certificates and degrees have increased by 1%. She explained that even though the number of women who were STEM degree or certificate holders almost doubled between 2012 and 2017, the number of men with STEM certificates and degrees increased substantially compared to women.
"We really didn't see a big movement in the percentages of women completing the degrees," she said, adding that there's a trend in women who end up switching to non-STEM related fields after completing their STEM education.
The brief cited a 2017 Georgetown study where a "triple-threat" of factors like receiving low grades, gender imbalance in a program or major, and gender stereotypes "compelled women in their study switch out of the discipline more quickly than their male peers."
Susan Madsen, founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project and Utah Valley University professor, said parents, teachers and counselors have the power to encourage young girls to aspire to enter STEM fields.
"Having role models in STEM … it is just critical to their identity formation, in terms of even thinking and aspiring to go into those areas," she said. "If they never really see women working in those areas, or have any kind of role models or examples, they're just not going to even consider going into STEM areas."
Even though the lack of women in STEM fields is not an issue that's unique to Utah, Madsen said "traditional attitudes" exist where women are expected to conform to traditional gender roles.
Madsen said she's heard stories from young girls who have said their high school counselor dissuaded them from aspiring to certain careers that are usually held by men.
"We still see those attitudes by people who influence girls and young women," she said. "We're talking about parents, we're talking about teachers in elementary and secondary education, counselors … people who influence in church settings and community settings."
The brief also mentioned that in a recent study, supported by Microsoft and a Southern Utah University professor, "young women who are introduced to a woman in a STEM career are 61% more likely to feel empowered and engage in STEM classroom activities."
Additionally, STEM clubs catering to girls in grades five through eight can increase their likelihood to choose STEM classes in high school by 30%, researchers say.
Universities and colleges, Madsen said, need to push their faculty to think about their pedagogy and "really understand how to teach to be inclusive to men and women."
Hanewicz mirrored Madsen’s statements.
She said it’s not just important for women to have role models who they can identify with, but also for people of a different race or ethnicity.
More diversity in male-dominated fields, she said, can bring innovation and problem-solving opportunities to the table.
Researchers stated that Utah women "continue to have strong completion rates in agricultural sciences and health professions," and earn masters and doctoral degrees in these fields at a higher rate than Utah men.
Madsen said jobs in agricultural sciences and health professions are popular among Utah women, rather than engineering, might be due to the jobs being considered "feminine."
According to comparison data between 2012 and 2014 for STEM degree awards at Utah higher education institutions, each of the Utah public college and university saw an increase in the number of women entering STEM-related programs from 2012 to 2017, except for Snow College and Dixie State University, which saw declines.
"For many women, their true passion could be science, technology, engineering and math. And if they don't get a chance to try it out and think about it, then they may lose their real passion," Madsen said. "Let's help these girls and young women really understand all their options when they enter college and universities."
Madsen said having more women in STEM positions can lead to further recruitment of women in the workforce and create a more welcoming work culture for them.
According to the Pew Research Center, STEM majors earned $20,000 more in a year's salary compared to non-STEM majors.