Trailblazing Women in STEM

Stock photo of female scientists
Women’s participation in STEM occupations is on the rise.

Our country has come a long way in expanding women’s access to roles in science and technology. During National Women’s History Month, with the 2017 theme of “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business,” we recognize trailblazing work being done to bring more women into these fields.

This includes women like Gertrude Elion, a Nobel Prize winner and first-generation American, who helped ensure women could follow her path by setting up a scholarship for chemistry students. Grace Hopper, one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and inventor of the first compiler for a computer programming language, demonstrated that women, too, could harness the innovative power of science and technology.

Marjorie Lee Browne, a professor of mathematics who set up one of the first computer labs at a historically black college in 1960, set the stage for those underrepresented in information technology. Lilian Wu, a prominent research scientist and corporate executive, advocates for policies that promote women’s continuing advancement in science, technology, engineering and math (otherwise known as STEM) fields.

STEM occupations are of special interest for a variety of reasons. Among other benefits, STEM jobs typically have relatively low levels of unemployment and higher wages, and these fields are foundational to research and development.

While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they make up only 26 percent of STEM workers. Though progress has been made in the fields of math and science, women remain significantly underrepresented in engineering and information technology. Women’s increased early exposure to science in schools has laid the groundwork for their participation in science-related occupations. In fact, the representation of women among life and physical scientists has increased from 14 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2015.

On the other hand, women’s share of employment in computer occupations declined from a peak of 34 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2015, and since 1990 there has been little growth in women’s employment in engineering, where it sits at about 14 percent. However, programs such as Kimberly Bryant’s Black Girls Code are providing role models and offering opportunities to learn computer programming.

Women’s share of employment in STEM occupations


Editor’s note: text-only version of the graphic is below. 

Women make additional contributions to STEM through ownership of science and technology companies. Women own 21.5 percent of professional, scientific, and technical employer businesses and 15.3 percent of information sector employer businesses. Women also own a larger share of businesses in each of these sectors among newer businesses established since the year 2000. Women like Angela Benton (NewMe Accelerator) and Noramay Cadena (Make in LA), for example, are helping women’s business ownership to grow, creating pathways for women entrepreneurs access to funding, including for technology startups.

These pioneering women give us reason for optimism. Through leadership, innovation and coordinated efforts to encourage women’s entrance into these fields, today’s trailblazers are helping to ensure a level playing field in STEM for everyone. Find more resources  and statistics on women’s employment on the Women’s Bureau website.

Joan Harrigan-Farrelly is the deputy director for the department’s Women’s Bureau.






Chart: Women’s share of employment in STEM occupations

Occupation 1970 1980 1990 2000 2015
STEM 7 14 23 25 26
Engineers 3 8 12 12 14
Computer occupations 15 26 34 30 25
Mathematics occupations 15 36 41 44 47
Life and physical scientists 14 21 27 33 41
Social scientists 17 36 51 48 59