Pathway to STEM Careers

The need for improved STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education is a trending topic. STEM skills have been identified as necessary to remain economically competitive as a country, and many have pointed out the benefits that accrue to all of society when diverse teams tackle technological and scientific problems. Yet, women are persistently underrepresented in many STEM fields, where the disparity begins in college classrooms. And, it has a definitive basis in women's history.

Nineteenth-century America experienced a surge of interest in higher education, and hundreds of colleges and universities were founded. Many are still around today. Around the same time, newly minted and expanding public school systems desperately needed teachers. Women were seen as ideal teacher candidates, and female undergraduates were encouraged to pursue teaching degrees to fill the need. Today, women still account for 80% of Education majors.

Co-educational institutions frequently barred women from science and technical majors or enrolled very small numbers of exceptional women. As higher education expanded, women tended to be routed towards a narrow range of fields that became "feminized" as women became the majority of majors. Women remain overrepresented in traditionally "feminine" areas like psychology, the health professions, public administration, and English. While nearly 30% of women earning doctorates received degrees in science fields up until 1900, waning employment opportunities for women scientists in the twentieth century led to the further decline in women's enrollment in those majors.

Ellen Swallow Richards was the first woman admitted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she earned a second bachelor's degree in 1873 (her first was from Vassar). She attempted to enter the graduate school, but she was barred from doing so because she was a woman. Richards eventually became an instructor in sanitary chemistry at MIT. Her work focused on water and sewage systems, food inspection laws, and mineral analysis, areas that were compatible with the Progressive Era's vision of women's civic responsibility. Richards is credited with inventing the field of Home Economics, with the goal of making housework scientific.

Almost 21.0 million students attended American colleges and universities in fall 2014. Women made up the majority of college students, with about 12.0 million females matriculating, compared with 9.0 million males. Though women comprise almost 60% of undergraduates, they tend not to graduate with degrees that would lead them into the highest paying, technological jobs. They earn only 18% of the Engineering degrees, 20% of Computer Science degrees, and 20% of Physics degrees. Interestingly, their representation in these majors has declined over the past 30 years.

Despite the paucity of women in STEM fields there are examples of exceptional women who have been successful in breaking down barriers and in doing so, have expanded opportunities for other women in their fields. Two of these extraordinary women, Dr. France A. Córdova , Director of the National Science Foundation and Dr. Ellen Ochoa, Director NASA Johnson Space Center, were honored at National Women's History Museum's Women Making History- DC event on May 11, 2015. As Director of The National Science Foundation, Dr. Córdova has observed that women remain underrepresented at nearly all levels of the science and engineering enterprise. One of her major priorities has been to broaden participation of women in STEM professions.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic-American woman in space when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery. As Director of the Johnson Space Center, she works to encourage girls to continue to bring their curiosity, creativity, and teamwork to space exploration.
Córdova and Ochoa joined generations of women who have eagerly embraced higher education and its promise of opportunity and fulfillment but stand out for their choices. Thousands of women have made tremendous strides in going to college yet they are not enrolling in the STEM fields that lead to many of the most highly paid and stable careers. Their lack of representation hinders business, industry, research, and government from devising and applying the best solutions to today's problems. Understanding the history of women's pathways to STEM careers through higher education helps us to better attack the problem of getting more women into the STEM pipeline. Our nation and world need more Córdovas and Ochoas.

You can continue this discussion on-line. Join the National Women's History Museum' Google Art Talk - "Women & STEM Education: Conduit to Opportunity" on Wednesday, June 10, 2015, 12 p.m. EST.

Sign up at: or check back afterwards for the archived version.