Closing the STEM Gap
By Jodie Spriggs
Today, in the US only 24% of the careers in STEM are held by women, leaving the other 76% of jobs to men. That’s a problem, not only because research shows companies are more profitable when they employ women, but also because this gender gap is partially responsible for thousands of missing female-focused inventions. When women aren’t in the room bringing their perspectives, developments in science, technology, engineering, and math can lag behind.
Many people might not think of Olay as a science-based company, but to become the #1 facial moisturizer brand in the US you have to have a lot of great female employees in STEM fields. We have aerospace engineers, packaging designers, biotech professionals, and chemists. These women are critical to our success today and tomorrow, which is why we have recently developed a new bold brand ambition: to double the number of women and triple the number of women of color in STEM by 2030.
Fortunately, the women at Olay were able to see their way through a STEM education and into a great career. However, there are many instances along the journey to a STEM career where young girls and women drop out.
Early on in life, it has been proven that boys and girls have equal aptitude for STEM – the same love and passion to build skyscrapers out of Legos, to “operate” on their stuffed animals, and to conduct experiments with all the liquid in the bathroom.
But over time, it changes. At Olay, we conducted research with STEM experts like Deborah Singer, former CMO of Girls Who Code, and those at Women in STEM, who support individuals pursuing a STEM career today. We believe there are three major drop-offs, or “cliffs,” on the road to becoming a STEM professional:
The Middle School Cliff: As if being a teenager weren’t hard enough, we notice one of the biggest drop-offs is during middle school. Interest in classes like computer science wanes, resulting in fewer girls taking AP exams in STEM classes. For example, in 2018 while female participation was on the rise, still only 28% of the individuals taking an AP computer science test were female, according to College Board. Taylor, a young woman from the Midwest, notes that societal pressures kept her from realizing that there was an option to go into STEM, forcing her to stay more within her assigned gender role. She wishes she had felt more supported by society, and, perhaps if she had, she would have had more confidence to go outside of the “norm” and follow her interests in science.
The Sophomore Slump: Going into college, 13% of girls cite plans for a career in a STEM field, compared to 26% of boys. Freshman year is exciting and energizing but years 2 and 3 are harder when reality sets in and classes move beyond the 101 levels. Women who enter college planning to major in STEM fields change to non-STEM majors at a rate of 49%, whereas 33% of men do the same, according to Women in STEM. One young woman, Natasha, said that she doubts herself and feels “not good enough,” especially compared to her male counterparts. “I had family, friends, and even teachers tell me that engineering is not for females,” said Natasha.
Early Work Force Exit: “I submitted a hundred applications to get only 2-3 calls back,” says NYSE QA engineer Kimberly. Unfortunately, she isn’t the exception. 50% of women leave STEM in the first five years. Only 15% of direct science and engineering jobs are held by women, and just 30% of women who earn a degree in engineering are still working in the field 20 years later. Bridget, a recent graduate, says that the key to retaining women in STEM fields is creating accepting environments for women to branch out to different disciplines, to never feel constrained to one type of career path, and to accept and support changes in major, in field, and in career. While stories like these are unsurprising to some, many don’t know about the STEM gap. Even when if they do learn about it, many still don’t believe it.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: what can we do to help? For Olay, that means driving awareness of the issue and putting our money in places we know can help.
Starting in February 2021, we made a concerted effort to drive awareness of these STEM “cliffs” by hosting a week-long takeover of Jeopardy, taking out major ad placements on Good Morning America, and producing a 30-second commercial that ran during the Super Bowl with the tagline #makespaceforwomen. We also donated $500,000 to Girls Who Code and designed the first ever STEM-themed float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, highlighting a young black female astronaut. There is so much more to come.
While the private sector must continue to take actions where we can in order to guarantee a diverse future workforce, we are also calling on Congress to face the STEM gap.
We’re supporting the Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act that helps save girls from falling off the middle school cliff, and we’re addressing the sophomore slump by providing significant grant opportunities to entities that develop mentoring programs for STEM students. Additionally, we are supporting outreach programs that provide students with opportunities to increase their exposure to STEM. The STEM Opportunities Act also seeks to promote minorities in STEM careers, and it supports caregiver policies for women in STEM careers to help prevent the early workforce exit.
We are just scratching the surface. It will take awareness and work at all levels – parents, mentors, teachers, counselors, policymakers, and business leaders – to close the STEM gap and ensure that women, including women of color, stay far away from the edge of the STEM cliffs and instead find their way to a rewarding career.
Jodie is the Senior Director for Analytics & Insights at Olay. We are thrilled to feature her at the Engage Summit.