I believe that the single most impactful thing that can be done to empower women to enter STEM fields is to encourage visible representation. STEM fields have a long-held reputation for being male-dominated, and at times, sexist. This may discourage young women from pursuing interests in these fields, leading to lower representation, especially at higher levels of seniority. By encouraging women pursuing STEM degrees and careers to share their positive experiences, the negative connotations associated with STEM degrees may be seen as less of a deterrent to young women.
This can be achieved through print and video interviews, blog posts, books and articles, conferences and talks, and outreach efforts. This could easily be done by external news sources, as well as universities and companies wanting to showcase individuals and their achievements in the field. The goal in this situation would be to eventually normalize the idea of women being in STEM fields. This also has the side effect of increasing awareness about specific fields in STEM. In my personal experience, I did not consider engineering as a career path and only had a vague idea of what biomedical engineers did until I happened to watch a TV program about tissue and organ engineering and realized that it was a career path that combined my interest in medicine with my love of technology. Since STEM covers such a broad range of disciplines, having accessible, concrete examples of women in STEM career paths may help young women visualize and consider themselves in those careers.
Unfortunately, increasing female representation in STEM is not simply about encouraging women to pursue these degrees; women drop out of engineering at a higher rate than men. Some sources estimate that 40% of women with engineering degrees either drop out of the field or never enter it. One reason for this is a work environment that undervalues and sometimes actively discriminates against women. Women in STEM fields often cite being given “secretarial” work, such as documentation and organization, while men were given technical engineering assignments. This is something that can be seen in university projects as well: myself and many of my female peers have experienced this firsthand in group projects. When women advocate for themselves to try to avoid this issue, it is often viewed unfavorably. I think this issue should be addressed directly during university with the goal of teaching students effective conflict resolution skills and fair work distribution. This could easily be added as a small module into a first-year group project course, where TAs and instructors could be available to help mediate disagreements and encourage healthy discussion. In this way, women entering STEM fields can feel more confident in advocating for themselves in the workplace, and men entering STEM fields can be part of a positive shift in the current workplace culture. However, this would only impact men and women entering the STEM field and would not do much to immediately change pre-existing workplace culture. However, the same ideas could be modified to create workshops for STEM companies, targeted at both men and women at all seniority levels to effect change.