In 1984, Laurie Williams was one of only five women graduating from the college of engineering when she got her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University.
“When you were on team assignments, you got the secretarial role,” she said. “I didn’t really get to do the hands-on stuff. It was through working in the field of engineering that I actually gained confidence in what I was good at. I had the people skills, and the technical skills. I think that’s a woman’s strength in the sciences.”
While the number of women entering STEM professions is slowly growing around the world there is still a sizable gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions in the United States.
In high school, male and female students participate in high-level math and science courses at similar rates and, in general, both genders achieve similar scores on standardized tests. However, male students are more likely than female students to pursue a college major or career in STEM interests, according to a study by National Science and Engineering Indicators.
Instilling confidence in her students is one reason Williams pursued teaching after earning her master’s degree and doctorate. Despite her professional success in engineering, working as a professor of engineering at Fort Lewis College is her passion. She remembers and understands the struggles students experience and offers the support they need.
“I think that women look for reward differently,” she said. “Grades weren’t necessarily the validation that I needed. What I wanted was respect from my peers, and a sense from my professors that they had confidence in my ability.”
Female scientists and engineers are more likely to work in social sciences, as well as agricultural, biological and environmental life sciences, according to the National Science Foundation. But Williams said women often have the technical skills and the people skills needed to work in STEM careers. They can be great communicators, cooperative and detail-oriented.
“I think it is a great career path for women now because I do think there is a lot of appreciation for that total package,” she said.
And there’s good money to be had for STEM graduates; they earn an average of $15,500 more annually than non-STEM majors, according to a U.S. Department of Education report. There’s also a strong job market and upward mobility.
“You’re not going to go in at entry level and stay there,” Williams said. “I just think you’re very nimble and you’re not going to be pigeonholed in any particular direction. And that’s fun. That makes for a lively career.”
Employment in STEM-related fields will increase by more than 1 million jobs between 2012 and 2022, according to 2016 study by Educational Research Center of America. The greatest shortages are seen in fields related to technology, including computer information sciences, game design and software development.
Melissa Glick, CEO at Think Network Technologies, a local IT solutions provider, said she sees a shortage of qualified candidates and experienced professionals.
“There are not enough graduates at the level at which jobs are coming to the market,” she said. “Now we have companies like mine, who need to fill the jobs, that just don’t have access to the types of people we need. In this area, it is more difficult because we are isolated. So we find that we have to relocate (talent) from some of the bigger markets.”