Women have been significantly underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) for generations. A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce found that women now hold 47 percent of all jobs but less than a quarter of STEM jobs. The same report says that while women earn nearly half of all undergraduate degrees, they make up only 30 percent of STEM degree holders.

The good news is that female representation in STEM fields is on the rise. A LinkedIn study conducted earlier this year found that more women entered STEM-related professions over the past 40 years than any other field. Test development engineers saw the most growth in female representation, with a whopping 243 percent increase over the same period.

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The LinkedIn research also included an analysis of women in leadership roles, using hiring data over the past eight years. The study found that there was a 27 percent increase in the number of women hired for leadership roles in the software and IT services sector. There was also a 23 percent increase in women hired for leadership roles in the hardware and networking industry.  

These growth statistics are important for reasons beyond the worthy goal of providing equal opportunity for all. Women’s representation in STEM matters because it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: fewer women in STEM means fewer mentors for girls who aspire to STEM fields. The future of science research is dependent on the divergent views and priorities for female scientists versus male, particularly in fields like medical research.

Among the factors that are creating barriers to women entering STEM careers are a lack of understanding of why it’s critical to have an equal representation of women, outdated attitudes, and lack of mentoring and encouragement. If you’re looking to understand the challenges and get some insights into things HR leaders can do to change the course of women in STEM, read on.

Why we need women in STEM fields

The lack of female researchers in the medical field has led to pharmaceutical exploration and clinical trials that skew males to the detriment of female patients. When men are the default subject of medical research, the medical community risks developing medications or treatments that are based on men’s weight, side effects, and tolerance levels. Medical researchers lose opportunities to learn how treatments might affect men and women differently. Without a female researcher on the team providing a unique viewpoint, women may not be included as subjects of the research and the bias might be skewed toward studying men’s reactions and male health issues.

Historically, the prevalence of male researchers has led to a focus on men’s health. For example, cardiovascular disease is the number one threat to women’s health in the U.S. and there are major differences in how it affects men and women. Although these differences include risk factors, symptoms and outcomes, women have comprised only a third of cardiovascular clinical trial subjects and just 31 percent of reports identify subjects by gender, supporting the theory that male lead research leads to male focused trials and results – possibly to the detriment of women.

Alzheimer’s disease research is another area in which it’s critically important to include women. Women are almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as men, and until recently, many in the medical community assumed that was due to women’s greater longevity. But now there’s emerging evidence that gender-specific hormones and gene expression may play a role, which has treatment implications. Having women involved in the research and clinical trials guarantees that their perspectives and unique concerns are integrated into the findings, and lessens the possibility that women’s health is ignored as medical advances are made.

Gender diversity matters in technology too – and it’s becoming equally an economic issue as it is an ethical one. One academic study examined Standard & Poor’s top 1,500 companies to see if having women represented in top leadership positions provided “informational and social diversity benefits” to their companies. The researchers concluded that firms focused on innovation were an average of $44 million more valuable when top leadership posts included women than peer companies with no women in primary leadership roles.

Companies developing products and services targeted to both men and women can benefit from a workforce that better understands women’s needs and desires. The value of diversity is born out of financial outcomes; according to a much-cited McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to perform better than non-diverse peers.

How attitudes are changing

Thankfully, myths about boys being inherently better at math and science than girls are fading as scientific evidence that contradicts those beliefs emerges. There are still serious obstacles to women succeeding in STEM fields. The evidence suggests that those barriers are bias in education and the workplace, lack of mentors and role models, and low confidence – not lack of innate abilities.

Girls and boys often start out just as interested in math and science subjects in elementary school, but as they get older, societal stigmas and peer pressure play an increasing role in how they see themselves. Girls internalize subtle societal cues that discourage them from competing head-to-head with male peers. The pressure to be “nice” and non-threatening can be overwhelming.

An Accenture survey conducted in the UK suggests that gender stereotypes are also to blame. The study gathered data from more than 8,600 people. It found that over half of teachers reported that they’d subconsciously stereotyped boys and girls in relation to STEM subjects. Parental attitudes can also hold girls back; the same study found that more than half of parents stereotyped children, too.

Fortunately, that’s changing as women take on more STEM roles and younger generations embrace gender equality. Young women today are typically more positive and enthusiastic about STEM careers than their mothers’ generation. Programs like Girls Who Code, which now reaches 90,000 young women, offer positive reinforcement and role models for girls who are interested in tech careers.

How to encourage women in STEM

It’s clear that we need women in STEM — they provide an incredibly valuable perspective and help their organizations become more successful. The barriers to women’s pursuit of STEM careers are falling. This is all good news, but the reality is that there’s still much to do. If you’re in a position to influence young women in your organization or in life outside work, you can help.

Encourage young women who are interested in STEM to stay curious. Like a muscle, exercising your mind can help you think beyond your scope of perception. Be observant and have bold ideas – continue to challenge your mind by asking questions.  Those that continue to ask questions and stay curious end up becoming the most successful leaders.

As an HR professional, you can work with your company’s leadership team to ensure that there’s no gender bias in your hiring and performance review practices. Studies show that when presented with resumes indicating equal qualifications and experience, reviewers were likely to perceive male applicants as more skilled — and worthy of a higher salary — than their female peers. 

One way to neutralize unconscious bias is to remove any information about an employee’s or job candidate’s gender from materials being considered in hiring, such as cover letters and resumes. For performance reviews, it’s a good idea to ensure that all hiring and promotion decisions are based on data that is factual and objective, removing subjective factors as much as possible.

It’s also important to let girls and young women know it’s okay to take calculated risks and that they don’t have to be perfect, according to Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code. Saujani points out that learning to code requires a high tolerance for failure and comfort with not knowing all the answers immediately. In a workplace setting, giving women more leeway to take risks and even make mistakes can build their confidence in traditionally male-dominated professions.

Role models and mentors are another critical success factor. Whether you’re in HR or not, you can help the STEM-focused women you meet on the job or in your community find the support they need, either through mentorship programs at your organization, community-based associations, or social media groups. There’s still a long way to go on the road to parity, but the destination will make the journey worthwhile.