Op-Ed

California’s future depends on women thriving in STEM careers

Earlier this month the state Assembly celebrated “California Women and Girls in STEM Week.” The Assembly started this tradition as a way to bring to light the vast gender inequalities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and to encourage our young women to pursue opportunities in these areas.

It should be no surprise that nearly half of the U.S. workforce is female, and that women are earning almost 60% of bachelor’s degrees. But a closer look reveals huge disparities — the more that girls and women advance in STEM fields, the greater the attrition in their numbers. Case in point: although girls tend to study STEM subjects in roughly equal numbers to boys in high school, and earn 50% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, they make up only 15% of graduates and workers in engineering.

Overall, in STEM fields women represent only 24% of the workforce. Even as the amount of college-educated women in the workforce has increased, they are not making progress into the hard sciences and engineering and advancing at the same rate as their male counterparts.

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Minority women are in the single-digits of representation in engineering, computer sciences and physical sciences. This has got to change.

What is a stake for California in these numbers? Simply, that when women are so dramatically underrepresented in these fields, the entire state suffers.

California has been the center of technological innovation for decades, and we will all lose out if half of our population is not able to advance in STEM fields, which are the core of our innovation culture. Quite simply, California risks its place as the global center for innovation if we cannot support our girls and women in the education and careers that fuel our economy.

This is an economic loss for our state, which desperately needs talented, trained engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians. But it also represents missed opportunities for women to have stable, rewarding and well-paid careers. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Girls Collaborative Project, while the average American woman generally earns 80 cents on the dollar compared to her male counterpart, women who work in STEM fields share a still present but smaller pay gap of about 88 to 91 cents on the dollar. A woman planning on a career in STEM can expect to make 33% more than women in non-STEM industries.

STEM fields are where the most exciting and cutting-edge advancements our species has ever seen are currently taking place. From gene editing, self-driving cars, virtual reality, clean energy, to our mission to Mars – this is the STEM fields’ prime time. We’ve got to work harder to make sure that opportunities to work in STEM fields are open to all.

That’s why we in the Assembly, and the women’s caucus, wanted to draw attention to this important issue; to encourage young women who are pursuing these fields, and to honor the trailblazing women who have gone before them. California’s future depends on them.

LAURA FRIEDMAN represents Glendale, La Cañada Flintridge and sections of Burbank in the state Assembly.

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