Expert Insights

The Lack of Diversity in STEM Stops With Us

The skillset of tomorrow’s leaders, our nation’s students, are currently taking shape, but there’s a major problem that’s setting them back: the lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and math, better known as STEM. According to a UNESCO 2019 Women in Science report, women serve as only 29 percent of workers in research and development roles. Furthermore, a 2019 Catalyst report found that women earn a mere 18.7 percent of information technology and computer science bachelor’s degrees. 

As a female chief engineer helping to build cutting-edge technology for organizations such as the U.S. military, and leading a team of other talented engineers, I cannot sit back and let this lack of diversity continue to impact our society. I’m calling for change with a firm belief that we can all individually play a role to buck the trend stalling our future women leaders.

Speaking From Personal Experience

My road to becoming an engineer wasn’t always smooth sailing. As a female in STEM, I resisted adversity and unconscious bias very early on, which became obstacles that, in the end, only made me stronger. Starting in middle school and continuing for years, I had peers ask me if taking advanced placement classes would be “too much” — some adults even went as far to suggest I take a lighter load of classes, dropping a few of the advanced curriculum courses. 

Years later, during college, the lack of diversity in STEM became extremely apparent to me. In most of my classes, I was one of very few female engineers in the room. You could count the others on one hand. Luckily, this didn’t stop me from pursuing my degree in mechanical engineering. Instead, I networked with these female peers, and also made it a point to work closely with my male classmates to demonstrate firsthand the knowledge and capabilities of women in STEM.

Today, the obstacles of being a woman working in a field that is about 85 percent male still follows me, and I choose to take these hardships and turn them into life lessons for youth. I actively mentor girls who want to be engineers, visiting them in middle and high schools throughout North Texas. I try to keep them interested in engineering during a time in their lives when social conditioning could push them off the STEM path. Last year, I also participated in a shadowing program, where three high school students followed our team of engineers, throughout a workday to learn what an engineer does and how that work is part of a larger mission of keeping society safe. But my efforts alone can’t change the massive lack of diversity in STEM that’s facing our youth today. We need everyone to play a role, and here’s how.

What We Can Do ... Immediately

As a society, if we each play a small role in inspiring diverse students to follow their interest in STEM, we could change the future of leadership. When I was a middle school student, I babysat for a family where the mother, who was fairly non-technical, would constantly tell me I had a strong technical skill set and she introduced me to the various career possibilities in STEM. She kept me motivated by hiring me, not just to watch her children, but to assemble furniture and electronics and engage in other activities that only boosted my self-confidence. 

Let’s be that cheerleader for youth — serve as a mentor, whether professionally or informally, to provide positive reinforcement and build confidence in our future leaders of all backgrounds. Mentoring can be as simple as buying a kit or cool toys for children to assemble and engage their technical passions. In fact, research from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations found that mentorship plays a significant factor in increasing minority representation, with diversity in workforce management positions boosting from 9 percent to 24 percent. It starts early, and it can start with you.

It’s also critical that students from a wide range of backgrounds be exposed to strong, diverse leaders in STEM careers. As a society, we have preconceived notions of what engineers “look like,” primarily inspired by movies and media. Let’s debunk this myth. A great resource is looking within your network or local chamber of commerce and tapping any STEM leaders who could serve as an inspiration. Connect them with your school system in an effort to spread the word, early on, that STEM leaders can be women. Let them emphasize that a career in STEM doesn’t always have to do with math and computers — STEM captures a wide range of skill sets that these youth could possess.

Lastly, from an education perspective, it’s imperative to prioritize problem-solving as the foundation of today’s curriculum. Let’s spend less time in textbooks and more time in labs, taking a hands-on approach to learning. This aspect of education will keep young students interested long-term and will develop the skills needed to truly become the next generation of leaders.

I am grateful to all of the women who came before me, who excelled at science, technology, engineering and math, and my tremendous mentors, both male and female. They paved a path I’m now able to take as a female engineer and business leader. The reality is, because of them, I’m lucky enough to not have experienced a <1 percent female ratio in STEM (I had at least 5 percent in college). Now, it’s up to us to ensure our next generation of female leaders only see that ratio increase, to ultimately close the ominous diversity gap in STEM.

About the Author

Jennifer Benson is Product Area Chief Engineer at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.