Midlands Voices: Taking action to support women in STEM

An op-ed by Amanda McGill Johnson, Executive Director of Nebraska Cures, and Sasha Forsen, Assistant Director of Bio Nebraska, was in the Omaha World-Herald on July 17, 2022.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields desperately need more workers in our state, yet Nebraska is lacking in representation of women in STEM, particularly women of color.

In 2019, only 27% of Nebraska’s STEM workforce were women, though Nebraska has jobs to fill across its STEM industries. How can we better recruit and retain women in STEM? Nebraska Cures and Bio Nebraska commissioned Nebraska Women in STEM: Listen Then Act to explore that question.

Our study focused on two key factors: What contributes positively to women choosing and staying in STEM careers? What prevents more women from choosing these traditionally male jobs?

Women bring distinct and invaluable perspectives to STEM sectors. We know this from individual examples of outstanding women currently excelling in STEM in Nebraska. We must do better by them and work to broaden the roadmap they have forged for their peers.

Researchers at the Center for Public Affairs Research at University of Nebraska at Omaha interviewed 48 women in STEM from around the state and found common themes. Positive themes include early interest in life to pursue a career in STEM and grit and perseverance.

Preventative themes include workplace inequities and power dynamics, barriers in career promotion and advancement, challenges navigating work-life balance. Nebraska influences on the STEM culture and workforce can be both positive and preventative.

When asked for examples of improvements that could be made, six recommendations emerged from the women surveyed. We believe the following goals are achievable through partnership and focus:

1. Raise greater awareness of the barriers for women in STEM. Women both in and out of STEM will identify relatable experiences in our report. Now is the time to educate the rest of the community about these barriers so we can begin work to remove them. Our economy depends on it.

2. Enhance professional development opportunities. Employers need more education about how to best remove barriers for women and create inviting and supporting environments for them to flourish. Women also would benefit from training to help them round out their skill sets and learn to productively advocate for themselves and policies.

3. Increase access to professional networks and mentorship. There are some active STEM organizations focused on women, but more needs to be done to connect women statewide and across STEM sectors.

4. Create greater flexibility in the workplace. Women, especially with young families, want to find ways to work productively while not sacrificing family. This includes more accessible, affordable, and quality childcare, flexible or remote work hours, and paid maternity and paternity leave.

5. Support teachers and schools to build the STEM pipeline. Teachers often have a tremendous impact on what a student considers for a career. More focus on opportunities for girls and teens to see women in STEM careers helps them see those jobs as an option for them. This is especially critical in rural areas.

6. Work to advance science literacy. A more science and tech literate society would benefit the growth of the entire STEM workforce, including women. Science communication training for women would not only help increase science literacy, but also build confidence in their own work. Advancing science literacy across Nebraska provides a holistic approach to elevating the importance of women in STEM and the value of Nebraska’s STEM workforce across the state.

We are committed to following through on these recommendations and challenge the community to join us. Gender does not determine ability in STEM careers. We cannot accept the cost of allowing prolonged underrepresentation of women in STEM.