Kristin Pallister can trace her interest in science to a childhood accident.
“I was hit by a car and needed to have a bunch of surgeries,” she says. “That got me interested in medical technology.”
Now, Pallister, 23, is about to begin a job as a clinical engineer at St. Jude Medical, which develops medical devices for cardiac and neurological patients.
By working in a field related to STEM (the commonly used acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Pallister will be a minority. In 2009, only 24 percent of STEM workers were women, though women made up 48 percent of the total workforce.
With young women such as Pallister getting into STEM, those numbers are shifting. According to the National Science Foundation, women received 45.4 percent of the master’s degrees awarded in science and engineering in 2009, up from 43.9 percent in 2000.
“After you get out of school, you have really great job prospects,” Pallister says. “Engineers have it a lot easier when it comes to looking for jobs, finding good employment and getting a good salary.”
How good? In May 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics listed the annual mean wage for a biomedical engineer at $88,360; wages in fields such as physics, chemistry and computer science were in the same range or higher. The average American worker made $45,230 last year, according to BLS.
The gender wage gap narrows in STEM, where women make an average of 86 cents for every dollar their male counterparts make, compared with 79 cents in other professions, according the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“Studying engineering is a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it,” Pallister says. “The kids who don’t make it are the ones who don’t realize how much work there’s going to be.”
As a freshman at George Washington University, she enrolled in the engineering program with a focus on biomedical engineering. After getting her undergraduate degree in 2010, she stayed on at GWU and earned her M.S. in biomedical engineering in May.
In some STEM subjects, such as biology and psychology, women get more of the master’s degrees than men. In computer science, physics and engineering, though, women’s participation levels don’t even crack 30 percent.
There are a lot of reasons for the gap, including the stereotype that science and math are “male.”
“When you ask men and women and girls and boys, ‘How much do you care about contributing to society with your job?’ women and girls are more likely to say that matters,” says Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women and one of the authors of the report “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” “People don’t associate engineering and computer science with making a social contribution or helping people.” Corbett says they should.
Some women may leave the field because they feel more social pressure than men to balance work with family and worry they can’t do that in a STEM career.
“There is the feeling that you have to be married to science, that you can’t have a family life,” says Dr. Sandra Hanson, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America who studies women in the sciences.
This issue becomes more prevalent the further along women get in their careers.
“There is a drop at every stage, a leakage of women from the science pipeline,” Hanson says.
Of course, a woman on the partner track at a law firm might deal with the same pressures.
“It’s demanding to be a scientist, and it isn’t for everybody,” says Maria Donoghue, an associate professor in Georgetown University’s biology department who has two children. “But any demanding career takes commitment.”
Women in STEM-related graduate programs benefit from having good role models and support systems, so many universities are working to increase the number of women on their STEM faculties.
“The women on the faculty are your role models, especially if you’re a graduate student considering an academic career,” says Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers. “They’re someone you can look at and say, ‘Wow, she’s like me and she’s been successful; I can do it, too.’”
Pallister belonged to a female engineering society while at GWU.
“It was good to have that support system of a bunch of other women who are going through what you are,” she says. “You have to study a lot more in engineering than some other majors, so it was nice to have friends to study with, so you didn’t feel like you were always in the library alone.”
Though it hasn’t completely disappeared, blatant discrimination isn’t encountered much by most women studying in STEM-related fields. What they might run into, experts say, is an unconscious bias against women.
“Research shows that people are more likely to associate math and science with men than with women,” Corbett says. “And when women are working in a ‘male’ field, people judge them to be less competent than a man. If they are deemed to be competent, people then judge them to be less likable.”
“You will run into a couple of cavemen you will have to prove yourself to,” says Dawn Meade, 38, marketing and media coordinator at Net-AV, a video communication and IT company. Meade recently obtained her M.S. in technology management information systems from the University of Maryland University College. “Make sure you’re well-versed in your area. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, it doesn’t just make you look bad; it reflects on all women.”
Once armed with an advanced degree in a STEM-related field, many women find a wealth of opportunities before them, especially as universities and other employers try to diversify their staffs and bring in people with different backgrounds and perspectives.
“The job prospects in engineering are fantastic, whether you want to go into academic life or a career in industry or government,” Shanahan says. “For someone with an advanced degree, I think she just increases her options and earning potential.”
In the end, a woman’s gender could wind up being a bigger benefit than an obstacle.
“Being a woman is part of who you are, but being a scientist is part of who you are, too,” says Meredith Fox, who graduated from American University with a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience in 2003 and now works as a research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. “It shouldn’t be something that holds you back in any way. I personally feel that there’s a younger scientific crowd coming in that’s plumb full of women. It’s a positive thing to be a woman, not a negative thing. Use it as part of who you are.”