How to Increase Female Participation in STEM (Gender Gap)

How to Increase Female Participation in STEM (Gender Gap)

While you’ve likely heard the reasons why women leave STEM fields, Dr. Diana Bilimoria researches why they stay along with other ways to develop and advance the careers of women in STEM.

Recognized internationally for her leadership and research, Dr. Diana Bilimoria is a Key Bank Professor and Chair of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Diana Bilimoria’s thoughts on:

  • Her number one piece of career advice for women in STEM
  • Why women in STEM matter
  • Statistics on the gender gap in STEM and what percentage of STEM workers are female
  • Why there’s a lack of women in STEM
  • How to get more women in STEM
  • How to increase female participation in STEM and help bridge the gender gap
  • The importance of mentors and sponsors for women in STEM
  • Why women leave STEM fields and why they stay

Want to hear more from Dr. Diana Bilimoria?

Enroll for free in her course Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change on Coursera.

Or if you’re a member of the press, set up an interview with Dr. Diana Bilimoria or learn more about the topics she can speak to.



Coursera: [00:00:01] From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m talking to Dr. Diana Bilimoria

She’s a Key Bank Professor and Chair of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

She’s been recognized internationally for her leadership and research, much of which focuses on gender diversity and women in STEM. As a refresher, STEM means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

We’re talking with her about her research and findings. Specifically, we’re diving into the current gender gap in STEM, how to attract more women and girls to the field, and help keep them engaged and successful once they’re there.

Let’s go ahead and get started. 

Well, first, I’d love to hear what first got you interested in studying women in STEM.

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:00:54] I’ve been studying women in the workplace for more than 30 years, and I focused at first primarily on corporate women, particularly in leadership and governance. And my early research was in the area of women on boards of corporations. 

And then as we got more involved in writing grants for the National Science Foundation’s Advance Program, I got very involved with other colleagues here at Case Western Reserve University about the lack of women in academia, the lack of women’s students in STEM. 

And so I started with a broader take, and then, it narrowed down to the importance of STEM.

Coursera: [00:01:41] Very interesting. So growing up, were you personally interested in math and science?

 Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:01:45] Absolutely, yes. My background has been in accounting and finance. I did an MBA degree and then came to the United States from India to study in business management. 

I specialized in organizational behavior, which is a social science, and subsequently got a faculty position at Case Western Reserve University.

Coursera: [00:02:10] Yes, and I’m curious if you have a piece of advice that you would give to a woman entering a STEM field who’s just starting out? 

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:02:17] I would suggest is setting your vision very high–aspire to the heights. 

Equip yourself with the necessary knowledge, the skills, and the experiences that are necessary. And build strong relationships that will give you the resources, the support, the encouragement–to be resilient, to be effective, and to be wise in the contributions you make in your team and as a leader in the workplace and beyond.

Coursera: [00:02:50] I love that. So, before we dive into some of the specifics, I’d love to hear a little bit more about the broader picture of women in STEM. 

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:02:58] What I’d like to do is just first speak about the importance of STEM. 

STEM is the driver, the engine of the economy. It is where innovation occurs. It’s where creativity is allowed, and it’s also the place where we can make a difference. We can solve the problems of the world, and that’s why it’s so important to get women into STEM. 

In terms of statistics and the gender gap, depending on the field of STEM, there’s great variation in workforce participation. 

Overall, women hold about 47 percent of all jobs, but of STEM jobs, women hold only 24 percent.

Yet by discipline, there’s great variation. For example, the life sciences–biology, biological sciences–women are represented almost at the 45 percent mark in the workforce.

In other fields, like computer science and engineering, not so much. In engineering, which is the lowest percentage of women in the workforce, close to about 12 percent, and computer science just over 20 percent.

 The gender gap is real in the workforce. It’s also real in terms of educational attainment.

At every level–except for biological sciences–women lag behind men in terms of educational attainment in physical science, in engineering, in computer science. And this is at every level at the bachelor’s level, master’s levels, and Ph.D. levels. 

As I said before, this is a reality, and we have to be looking for solutions that will help us to address the kinds of things that we need to do.

This is the area where there is the biggest opportunity for research to provide insights. What is the organizational, the institutional, and even the cultural and societal implications for transformational change in the area of STEM education as well as STEM workforce participation?

Coursera: [00:05:15] Right. I know I’ve heard a lot about the STEM gap in kind of broad sweeps, like those first numbers you talked about, but I’m really interested to hear how it differs depending on the science, you know, whether it’s engineering or computer science.

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:05:29] In areas like the life sciences, there is more of a direct connection to meaningful work–of a direct connection between the science we do and the consequences for the improvement of humanity’s problems, illnesses, disease, and so on.

That direct connection is very important. It’s important for everyone, but it seems to be particularly important for women. 

There are other issues in education that is highly male-dominated. Many of us have heard of these challenges, of course, around implicit biases, micro-aggressions, other ways by which not everyone is included and made to feel welcome.

And that seems to be more likely in both workplaces as well as educational settings.

Coursera: [00:06:21] So where does this gap come from? How did it start?

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:06:25] Oh, goodness! It isn’t a singular answer. I describe it in my courses and my classwork as a complex system affecting women’s achievement, and it consists of cultural issues, occupational issues, organizational issues, interpersonal and issues, and individual issues choices we might make. So, it’s a complex interplay between those.

For example, sex segregation in particular jobs or even careers: there are lots of reasons for that. They have to do with the image that the field has and how the media portrays leaders in those fields. It has to do with the role models that we have, the examples we see.

It has to do with the mentorship and the sponsorship and the coaching, the advancement, the networking, the training, the development. 

It has to do with the promotion systems, the recruitment systems, the evaluation systems. All of these come in as organizational realities. 

But these are historical. These are widespread. And one-off solutions do not work. 

We need simultaneous, multi-level, multi-dimensional interventions. 

Coursera: [00:07:42] Based on your research, what are some successes or changes that you would like to see to effect and have a positive change?

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:07:48] This is the work that we’ve been doing for the last 15-plus years through the National Science Foundation’s Advance Program. 

I’ve studied many institutions of higher education as they have sought to transform their cultures, their structures, their policies, their practices around the recruitment, advancement, retention, and leadership of women, both faculty and students.

My research is showing that there need to be many things happening simultaneously at many levels.

So, for example, at the individual level, we do need to equip women with the kinds of political savvy, the necessary knowledge, and skills for making them competitive. 

But at the same time, we also need to move into the organizational level.

We need to train and develop the department heads–the deans in an academic setting, the managers in a workplace setting–to be more facilitative of the career development of women employees, to understand their role in affecting these women’s careers by providing the kind of resources and supports that would enable their career advancement.

We need to look at the organizational level also in terms of the policies. How are the policies used? Are they equitable? How do we create a level playing field? 

How do we create sponsors, who, when decisions are being made about who might be assigned a particular task or who might be given a particular leadership opportunity, that they are able to bring forward names of women, not just men? 

So, these are systematic changes that need to happen, and they are at different levels. 

They are at the policy level. They’re the structures. They’re about training and development and education. 

And they are about providing individuals with opportunities to change their mindsets so that they’re not continuing doing things as businesses as usual, but they’re taking intentional steps to make a more equitable workplace.

Coursera: [00:10:07] And what would that look like on the workplace level? Are there any changes that you’ve found in your research that would be most effective?

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:10:15] What we’re finding is that there has to be a will to change. That involves creating education for managers at all levels–insights about what would make for more equitable decision-making. And it can be at the level of salary. It can be at the level of recruitment for positions, availability of positions for every level.

How do we make sure that we can have more equity?

So, training is involved, and it could be implicit bias training, but it’s more about discussion. It’s more about education, not just telling people what to do, but rather sharing the reasons needed for change.

We have many thousands, if not tens of thousands of jobs, that are in STEM areas that are remaining unfilled because we cannot find the talent to fill these jobs. We’re not making the full utilization of our workforce, and the full development of talent is not yet occurring. 

And this is what needs to be shared with every single manager up and down the organizational hierarchy–coming from the top, starting from the bottom, and then middle out.

Change does not come from one direction. Change must come from all directions.

Coursera: [00:11:36] Hearing you talk about open jobs and empty roles, I would imagine that goes back to what you mentioned earlier in that a lot of women and girls aren’t going into those fields, and they aren’t graduating at the same rates with those degrees. 

I’m curious to hear at an education level: how can we get more women interested in STEM? What’s the research shown?

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:11:57] The research shows that we have to start early. This is the most important. If we wait until high school, we’ve lost a lot of opportunity already. 

So, I can cite a report from the Girl Scouts of the United States.

Starting as early as middle school, we need to create exposure to the kind of projects, meaningful work, role models, other women in STEM, to help girls see themselves, identify themselves as potential scientists, engineers, astronauts, and so on.

I would say confidence is very important. Having high aspirations, hard work, and persistence–these are some of the findings that the Girl Scouts studied. 

We found that exposure to STEM fields, meeting and having conversations with the women who are in those fields–and then having support from the family and from the educational system.

 I want to speak not just, you know, in a monolithic sense about girls and women.

Women of color are particularly more likely to be excluded from STEM. Girls– African-American, Hispanic girls–have the highest interest in STEM. They have the highest confidence and the highest work ethic, as the Girl Scouts’ report showed. But they have fewer supports. They have less exposure, and they have lower academic achievement than white girls do. 

And so, we need to understand that there is a variation even among girls, and certainly among women as well, and recognize that the pathways in STEM need to be more nuanced. And, we need to have multiple fronts at which this issue is handled.

Coursera: [00:13:49] I love talking about kind of like the two sides of this: getting more women into STEM, which we’ve talked about, and then also how to ensure that women stay in STEM once they actually get there.

I saw one study recently that half of female scientists leave their job after their first child, and of course, that’s just one study. But I’m curious to hear your reasons from the research about why women leave once they finally get there. 

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:14:13] Research is very clear about why women leave. 

As you mentioned, the lack of parental supports, childcare, but there are other reasons that have been well supported in the literature by multiple reports: poor working conditions, tough, work-life balance issues, lack of recognition, and opportunities for advancement.

A more masculine, male-dominated workforce that does not support and recognize the contributions of women. This comes up in almost every report that you can imagine, and literally, there are dozens of reports over the last maybe five-to-10 years.

So, the reasons why women leave are completely clear. 

Our research focuses on why women stay. Why do women persist in engineering or in science? 

This is what we have found: the reason why women stay is not the opposite of why they leave. 

So, the reason why women stay is not because they have excellent working conditions. It is not because they don’t experience work-life balance challenges. It is not because they don’t face male-dominated workplaces. 

It’s not that. It’s a whole different set. The reasons why women stay are primarily because they identify with science and engineering as part of their identity, rather than feeling forced or pushed into the profession.

They have a vision and goals for who they want to be in the future. They’re able to see the kinds of options they have and navigate the workplace.

And so, the practical implications of this is that we need to encourage women and girls in our educational systems as well as in our workplaces to develop a sense of vision about their future, confidence about their skills and abilities even more than they already have. 

I feel women already have a lot of confidence. It’s that the workplace doesn’t recognize that. We need to help our workplaces recognize the contributions that women make and appropriately reward them for that and advance them for that. 

And we need to help our women to create the kind of leadership, the goals, the vision that will enable them to be able to navigate workplaces that are sometimes quite difficult and challenging, which every report has mentioned.

Coursera: [00:16:52] So, it sounds like having a mentor, specifically at the place where you work, could really be a key piece of the puzzle here at an individual level. 

To have someone that you can go to, to figure out, how do I advance here? What’s important? How do I navigate it? 

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:17:08] Mentoring is key, but mentoring doesn’t have to be only in your specific organization or in your specific workplace. 

Mentoring can be more general. It can be almost what we will now refer to as 360-mentoring. So, you can find mentoring outside of your organization, within your industry. You might even find mentors outside of your industry. They might be people, even in your social circles. 

Equally important to mentoring, we are finding that there’s a particular role–it’s called a sponsor. 

A mentor is somebody who provides advice, guidance, and usually has had the experience and understands the political realities of the organization system.

A sponsor is somebody who undertakes what we call professional advocacy. They’re the people who will put your name forward when there is an opportunity that is available. They’re people who will fight for you to get the resources in order to enable your leadership development. They will be the people who open doors, provide you network connections, provide resources, visibility, and so on. 

And so, the roles of mentors and sponsors are complementary but not necessarily substitutable. 

So an employee, male or female, but particularly with women, needs to have both mentors and sponsors.

And the sponsorship role, many studies are beginning to find is even more critical for purposes of advancement.

Coursera: [00:18:50] And the mentor role–I know we talked about–could be someone outside of the workplace. But should this sponsor be someone who does work with you so that they can bring your name up in those conversations? 

Dr. Diana Bilimoira: [00:19:03] Yes, the sponsor needs to be present at the decision table. If they’re not there, your name is not brought forward. So, the sponsors often need to be physically present in these decision-making settings. 

I am so excited about this course. It’s called “Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change,” and we offer it on the Coursera platform.

I hear from people who participate in this course, literally from far corners of the world, and I hear about the tremendous change that they are bringing about in themselves and being able to see themselves, the opportunities, and engage with the workforce that is around them in different ways. 

So, the course focuses on some individual elements, such as developing a leadership vision, becoming more clear about your contributions, your strengths, your gaps.

And then it also goes into some other more team level and group level aspects, such as managing in teams and being a team leader, negotiating more effectively, communicating with others in a way that is inspiring.

And finally, the course ends at the purpose of the changes that we seek in our workplaces, in our societies, in our communities. How can we bring about and inspire and enable and support change in a positive direction that benefits everyone?

We have heard from many, many women who have benefited from this free course.

Coursera: [00:20:44] To learn more from Dr. Diana Bilimoria, go to today to enroll for free in her course Women in Leadership: Inspiring Positive Change.

 And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning!