In recent years, the absolute number of women earning degrees across science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields has increased relative to men. Despite these gains, women—especially women of color—remain underrepresented with respect to their presence in the workforce and the U.S. population. The disparities in representation vary by discipline and field, yet even in professions in which women are at parity or overrepresented, as is the case in certain sub-disciplines within biology and medicine, there remains a dearth of women among the senior ranks.
This report reviews the current state of knowledge of factors that drive underrepresentation of women in STEMM and provides an overview of existing research on policies, practices, programs, and interventions for improving recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in these fields. The report also evaluates why promising practices have not been implemented by a greater number of institutions. Importantly, the focus of this report is not on “fixing the women,” but rather on promoting systemic change in the STEMM enterprise in an effort to mitigate structural inequities, bias, discrimination, and harassment that a substantial body of literature demonstrates significantly undermines the education and careers of women in STEMM.
While several National Academies reports have addressed underrepresentation of women in STEMM fields (see Appendix B for an overview of findings and recommendations from previous National Academies reports), this report distinguishes itself by placing emphasis on the experiences of women of color and women from other marginalized groups who experience intensified biases and barriers. Moreover, the report highlights those shared and distinct barriers faced by women in STEMM disciplines—engineering, computer science, physics,
biology, medicine, mathematics, and chemistry—in order to clarify why national patterns of underrepresentation differ according to discipline.
To address specific barriers, the committee obtained evidence of the efficacy of a diversity of strategies and practices that institutions can adopt to improve recruitment, retention, and advancement of primarily White women across a broad range of STEMM disciplines and multiple stages of the educational and career paths. The committee concluded that additional investigation is needed to understand how to support most effectively the participation of women of color and women of other intersecting identities in STEMM and understand better the impact of promising practices on women studying and working in a greater range of institutional contexts (e.g., minority-serving institutions, community colleges).
Research accomplished to date points to a common set of conditions that support institutional adoption of practices to improve recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM. These include: (1) committed leadership at all levels; (2) dedicated financial and human resources; (3) a deep understanding of institutional context; (4) accountability and data collection—especially as a tool to inform and incentivize progress; and (5) adoption of an intersectional approach that explicitly addresses challenges faced by women of color and other groups who encounter multiple, cumulative forms of bias and discrimination.
Based on analysis of existing evidence, the report offers to a range of stakeholders—Congress, federal agencies, faculty and administrators in higher education, and professional societies—a set of actionable recommendations on how to drive systemic change in STEMM education and careers. The recommendations are intended to work synergistically to incentivize and inform broad adoption of evidence-based promising practices for improving recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM. Specifically, the nine recommendations and their associated implementation actions support a process by which data-driven accountability, committed leadership, and tangible rewards, resources, and recognition for equity and diversity efforts drive an iterative cycle that comprises four steps: (1) an institution, school, or department collects, analyzes, and monitors quantitative and qualitative data to diagnose issues specific to recruitment, retention, and advancement of both White women and women of color; (2) institutional leaders take action to address shortcomings at the program, school, or department level by drawing upon existing research findings and practices suitable to adopt or adapt for a targeted, evidence-based approach; (3) institution, school, or department repeats the data collection and monitoring to determine whether the intervention has been effective or a new approach is needed; and (4) leaders formally institutionalize effective practices by changes in policy to sustain modification of leadership, budget, and other disruptors with the potential to undermine sustainability.
The research reviewed in this report provides a strong foundation for institutional action to improve recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM fields.