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Diversity in STEM

February 16, 2021

Women have made many important strides in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), yet they are still largely underrepresented. While women make up half of the college-educated workforce, they only account for 28% of STEM careers. The greatest disparities are seen in engineering, computer science and many of the physical sciences. And sadly, in some cases, the trends are actually moving towards less representation. In 1983, women composed 37% of computer science degrees. This number has since declined to 18%. In addition, even after securing a degree, women face adversity in the workforce. Women in STEM careers are paid around $16,000 less annually than their male counterparts. They are also 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry due to a hostile work environment.

So why is there a growing emphasis on not just equal gender representation in the workplace but diversity more broadly?

To start, it helps to understand what we mean by diversity. Diversity is a group phenomenon. No individual is diverse, diversity is created by whom you choose to bring around the table, which often pays off for companies…big time. According to a University of Maryland and Columbia Business School study, gender diversity at the management level leads to a $42 million increase in the value of S&P 500 companies.

Additionally, diversity gets to the heart of how scientists do….well, science. Often our narratives about science focus on an individual’s brilliance (think Albert Einstein) and involve tales of toiling away, isolated in a lab. In reality, scientific research is largely conducted by teams. When scientific discovery is framed in this context (i.e. groups working in collaboration), diversity serves to strengthen this work.

There is research to affirm the value of this diversity. Studies indicate the ability to solve complex problems often results from the ability to see a problem from different perspectives. In the book The Difference, Professor Scott Page provides evidence that when it comes to quickly and effectively solving problems in a group, a diversity of perspectives appears to matter more than the intelligence of the individuals who compose the group.
As we better understand the value of a diverse workforce, it becomes critical to engage people at a young age and develop their interest in STEM. Science centers like Imagination Station can play an important role in building this diverse workforce. By serving as community hubs, we can engage a diverse audience in meaningful STEM learning. We also have an important role to play in ensuring that underrepresented groups in STEM fields are more visible. As Ellen Stofan, Director of Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, stated in 2018, “Museums play such a critical role in attracting and educating kids that we have to make sure they’re telling the stories and holding up role models of all people who’ve been involved in the STEM fields.”
At Imagination Station, we couldn’t agree more.