STEM minus Women = Private Sector Problem
In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), women have begun to outnumber men in higher education enrollment. The World Bank and others have clearly documented this. Data on women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in LAC is scarce. However, a recent IDB study found that women in the region earn only 36 percent of higher education degrees in STEM subjects. This means that approximately 11 percent of all higher education degrees earned by women in LAC are in STEM subjects.
Such educational disparity has implications in the workforce, especially the private sector, too.
In the US, the White House reports that women who work in the STEM professions earn 33 percent more than women in other professions. They also estimate that the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM fields than in others. However, while a small number of women pursue STEM in higher education, even fewer women graduate and work in these fields.
Why do women run away?
There are several factors which explain why women have stayed away from these fields. Firstly, women are socialized to believe that STEM subjects and career paths (engineering, renewable energy) are for men. These stereotypes are hard to break.
Secondly, a 2012 report found 38 percent of women working in engineering in the U.S. opt out of the industry because of hostile work culture, lack of flexibility and little opportunity for professional development. The researchers were surprised at how few women cited family reasons, dispelling the myth that this was the main reason women opt out of the workforce.
Women in STEM benefits businesses
A growing body of research concludes that diversity – gender and other – is essential for productivity, competitiveness and innovation for companies, and investing in women is critical for poverty reduction. Women influence up to 80 percent of global spending.
Given this, it is important that women are able to have a strong say in how products and services are developed, and that companies are responsive to this market segment. According to a Deloitte study companies with diverse leadership teams that include a significant percentage of women are more innovative and generate higher financial returns.
Diversity leads to innovation, and innovation is essential for growth. IDB research found empirical data demonstrating that countries with a higher proportion of engineering graduates had the tendency to grow at a more accelerated rate than other countries with a higher proportion of students pursuing other disciplines. It is vital, then, to increase these numbers by attracting more women to STEM.
So what can be done?
The business and development cases demonstrate clearly that LAC must invest in STEM for economic growth, and the private sector has an important role to play. We can:
- Highlight the importance of STEM to higher education institutions and work with basic education and public institutions to create a pipeline of motivated young women with access to innovative student financing options.
- Engage with companies in renewable energy, telecommunications and related fields to make the sectors and career paths more attractive to young women and diverse students.
- Work with corporate leadership to ensure that companies are more inclusive and responsive to a diverse workforce by fostering gender equity work culture, better recruitment and retention, talent development and flexible-work arrangements.
We must break the stereotypes regarding women and show businesses and the educators in LAC that gender equity in STEM is not just the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do. It adds up.
What are your ideas for improving gender equity in STEM in LAC?
 Scott Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, 2007.