Susan Madsen: Opportunity is knocking for women in STEM

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Girl's learn about super absorbent polymers that when exposed to water can expand 100 times its size during the 3rd annual SheTech Explorer Day at UVU in Orem, Friday, March 11, 2016. More than 1000 high school age girls attended the event that promotes STEM education.

According to a recent article in Utah Business Magazine, Utah had the strongest job growth in the nation in 2018, with many of those jobs based in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. In fact, Utah contains three of the top 100 best cities for STEM jobs in the United States, including Salt Lake City (No. 8), Provo (No. 26), and Ogden (No. 41).

Yet the latest research brief from the Utah Women & Leadership Project shows that since 2012, women with STEM certificates and degrees have increased by a mere 1%. And that’s a problem. Here’s why.

Research continues to show that diversity in the workplace is not just a nicety, but a necessity. Organizations with a diverse workforce are more creative compared to companies with more homogenous teams. In fact, the variety of perspectives and skills increases productivity and ingenuity.

For example, men and women have different approaches to addressing problems, with men tending to converge on issues to zero in a solution while women prefer to diverge and explore many possible options. Each approach is good, but a combination of approaches is better.

And it’s not just about gender. Companies that hire people with a range of ages, races, ethnic backgrounds and disabilities will be stronger for it. One recent study in Forbes showed that diverse teams make better decisions 87% of the time. And they make those decisions faster and with half the meetings.

Some may resent quotas and hiring practices that seek out non-skills based criteria, but the numbers show that the more variety an organization can get, the more productive it will be. Bottom line, while sameness may make us feel more comfortable, it is the enemy of innovation.

If disruption requires difference, then having more women in STEM is a necessary component for growth and productivity in Utah. But how do we do this? We need to start young and encourage both our girls and boys to find out what they are passionate about, even if those things do not fall under “traditional” gender roles. Our unconscious biases may steer a mini Marie Curie to work with measuring cups instead of test tubes; or micromessage a young Sallie Ride that she is better suited to wishing on stars than studying them.

Another important component is proving role models. When young female students are exposed to woman with STEM careers, they are 61% more likely to feel empowered and want to participate in STEM activities. It’s hard to be what you can’t see.

Many schools and communities are getting on board and offering STEM clubs that cater to girls in grades five through eight. Classes that teach coding, robotics, or chemistry can improve girls’ chances of taking STEM classes in high school by 30%.

If STEM related businesses are going to continue to thrive in Utah, a diverse labor pool is required. Opportunity is knocking here in Utah, and we need to prepare all Utah children to answer the door.

Susan R. Madsen | Utah Valley University

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University, and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.