Our Work Is Far From Over

Alexis McKittrick, Ph.D.
FY24 SWE President

Karen Horting, CAE
Executive Director and CEO

Since 2017, the Society of Women Engineers has produced an annual analysis of peer-reviewed research that examines the complex relationship between gender and the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM. As the most comprehensive social science examination of literature on the state of women engineers and technologists around the globe, this compendium is relied on by educators, employers, and policymakers who seek to understand and improve the status of women in STEM education and practice. It forms the backbone of SWE’s advocacy work and will be distributed to members of the U.S. Congress and their aides during SWE’s annual Congressional Outreach Days in mid-March.

Women in Engineering and STEM: A Review of the 2023 Literature,” was produced for SWE by researchers with the University of Washington Center for Evaluation & Research for STEM Equity — experts in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Once again, this year’s review highlights areas in which women and non-binary individuals have made progress — and the areas in which much more remains to be accomplished.

The research uncovered that many concrete steps can be taken in both engineering education and professional practice to encourage girls and women to pursue STEM majors, graduate with a STEM degree, begin a STEM career, remain in that career, and find long-term satisfaction and success. In the K–12 years, for example, offering students role models who mirror themselves in gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, and other attributes continues to play a critical role in helping students believe they belong in STEM. Through the collegiate years, mentors who feel a close connection with their students and who become directly, actively involved in their mentees’ success can make a substantial difference.

In professional practice, finding commonalities among one another can help women develop confidence and enhance skills, and studies show that having women in leadership positions is particularly tied to an increase in the number of women hired and promoted in STEM fields. Identifying and engaging true allies, especially among men, is another key factor in success, according to the research.

In all steps in their STEM journeys, women and non-binary individuals still face discrimination, bias, and the limits of stereotypes. In referencing one report that exemplifies many others, the authors state that “gender stereotypes, rather than individual-level explanations, play a central role in maintaining gender disparities by limiting women’s ability to feel as if they fit in STEM and therefore lowering their interest.”

Moreover, in both academia and the workplace, the intersection of gender with other characteristics that are often subject to discrimination — race/ethnicity, immigrant status, gender identity, sexual orientation, differing abilities, and more — adds complexity to women’s pursuit of STEM fields. In one study, for example, Black participants identified gender inequality as systemic, and a relatively small number of Black and Latinx participants exhibited confidence that they could successfully counter systemic biases. In another study, researchers noted that women of color in STEM academic fields often did not negotiate for better salaries out of fear of backlash.

When it comes to women studying and practicing in STEM fields, some progress has certainly been made. But it is equally clear that structural supports — appropriate role models and mentors, proactive allies, strong nondiscrimination policies, and active encouragement — are necessary for women to achieve parity with men. And that is why SWE’s work is far from over. After nearly 75 years, SWE’s mission remains rooted in advancing women in STEM and serving as an invaluable resource for advocacy, information, collaboration, and inclusivity.