A woman with a laptop working on a server

Share

share to linkedInshare to Twittershare to Facebook
Link copied
to clipboard

Jobs requiring STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are some of the most highly paid in the world. With nearly every business today requiring some sort of technological component — whether that’s just a website or a complete suite of software products — demand for workers with STEM skills is only going up. Most jobs in STEM can be done remotely, creating even more opportunities for this talented pool of workers.

Training in STEM can open all sorts of doors, but one major problem remains: equality.

Women and gender minorities still regularly face discrimination, fall victim to stereotypes, and struggle with a lack of acknowledgment for their work in general. This is especially true in fields like STEM, where women have made significant progress but must continue to compete for recognition and opportunities that remain dominated by men.

Fortunately, the recent boom in remote work has helped to accelerate progress toward equality. Women are now finding more opportunities to pursue STEM careers despite the obstacles in front of them. But how exactly is remote work benefiting women, especially women in STEM, and how can businesses contribute to these improved opportunities?

What is STEM?

STEM is an umbrella term referring to four different fields of study: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Several careers exist within these fields, including fintech, banking, architecture and design, application development, and software engineering, to name just a few. Without STEM workers, none of the modern technological comforts we depend on would exist.

While STEM fields offer great career paths, women have traditionally faced extra hurdles in joining the STEM workforce. Equality and equal opportunity, not to mention equal pay, have been a distant goal for most. With the rise of remote work opportunities, though, the tide is turning.

History of women in STEM

The acronym of STEM includes any form of research or technological work, no matter when in history it occurred. Women have historically been a large contributing force to these advancements, though many have had their accomplishments ignored, stolen, or snubbed in the past.

Some notable examples of these groundbreaking women include: 

  • Nettie Stevens earned her doctorate in biology at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia before going on to discover X and Y chromosomes.
  • Lise Meitner, in a partnership with Otto Hahn, contributed to discoveries concerning nuclear fission. However, in 1944, the Nobel Prize for these discoveries was awarded to Hahn alone, while the committee disregarded Meitner’s contributions.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu, also known as the “First Lady of Physics,” worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II before later partnering with two male colleagues when she helped disprove the “principle of conservation of parity.” Wu went unrecognized for her contributions while her two colleagues earned a Nobel Prize in 1957.
  • Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-American actress and inventor, pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis for Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.

This is only a small sampling of the scores of women who have made strides in STEM fields. The technologies today may be more advanced and exciting than ever, but women continue to see their contributions and talents overlooked. 

What is the gender gap?

A “gender gap” refers to systemic roadblocks in which social, political, professional, and cultural opportunities are not equally achievable depending on one’s gender. 

Historically, these systemic roadblocks do the most harm to those who do not identify as cisgendered men. This gap is particularly notable in STEM fields. Women hold only 27% of STEM jobs in the US, for example. Members of the LGBTQ+ community also face challenges to get involved in STEM, due in part to the harassment and hostility they often receive at work, especially in countries that do not have protections for LGBTQ+ people in their laws.

Gender gaps in STEM fields

While gender gaps exist across all of STEM, experiences may vary depending on specific niches and professions.

  • While 20% of engineering graduates are women, some 40% of those graduates either quit the industry or never practice.
  • Women earn only 83% of men’s pay for the same jobs on average, and while these percentages shrink to single-digit gaps for many STEM professionals, those gaps still remain.
  • Gender pay gaps are even greater for Black, Hispanic, and Native American women.

The theme is consistent: women may earn more in STEM, but they still do not earn as much as their male colleagues for the same work. Smaller gaps are good, but the goal is to eliminate the gender pay gap, not just lower it.

How the transition to remote is impacting STEM 

Some STEM fields, like software engineering, flourished during the major shift to remote work over the last two years. Others, like many hands-on sciences, struggled.

Science

From canceled professional conferences to closed in-person labs and active research being put on hold indefinitely, many forms of hands-on scientific work came to a halt when people were sent to work from home. Especially in the life-sciences field, researchers were unable to complete lab work, testing, and other procedures in a home setting without the proper cleanroom tools and safety precautions.

While scientists in many fields may still be able to work at full capacity from home, others have had to put expensive research projects on hold. Many professionals need to consider how to join and host conferences from home, coordinate the writing and editing of papers, and facilitate learning and development in an asynchronous working environment. Due to this indefinite pause on many in-progress research projects, many scientists fear losing their work, losing grants, or losing their lab positions.

Technology

Many employees in the tech sector were already working from home in varying capacities before the boom in remote work. More experience with remote work meant tech professionals didn’t experience as much disruption in their roles. As such, many tech workers are now more comfortable working remotely than in offices — and do not plan to give up their newfound freedom any time soon. 

This is not to say there aren’t skeptics of remote work within the field. However, the ongoing transition to distributed work in this industry was already in progress, so decisions on where to work are not new to today’s tech workers.

Engineering

Software engineers can work remotely with ease, but what about more traditional engineering fields, like electrical engineering or mechanical engineering? Some of this work can be done remotely, but in reality, many engineers of varying specialities continue to work in offices. Emerging tools for asynchronous collaboration are helping to bridge the gap, but for now, most positions for engineering work continue to require an in-office presence.

Mathematics

Mathematics in STEM includes fields such as banking, fintech, and accounting.  Many of these niches have a unique relationship with remote work. While these industries are filled with roles that could often be done remotely, they also must meet high standards related to privacy, cybersecurity, and compliance. The divide in mathematical professionals today is primarily one of tradition. More modern fintech companies are happy to allow workers to stay remote, while more traditional banks and other financial institutions may not be so allowing.

Of course, finance is far from the only mathematical discipline in STEM. Because math touches so many different fields, possibilities for remote work vary dramatically from one opportunity to the next.

Benefits of remote work for STEM professionals

Remote work offers tremendous benefits for everyone who can enjoy the privilege, especially in STEM. Women and LGBTQ+ people may find some of the challenges they faced in offices to be diminished or even nonexistent in remote work environments. That’s not to say that women no longer face discrimination in remote work environments — or that employers can afford to be lax about protecting their workers — but overall, remote work does more to reduce disparity than exacerbate it.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons remote work is making life better for women in STEM:

Employers are no longer limited to hiring in one region.

Local STEM communities can be insular. Employers and hiring managers tend to favor candidates they know, which often means men hiring men. However, now that fully remote roles (and fully remote hiring processes) have been normalized, employers are casting their nets wider and relying less on local relationships.

STEM job opportunities have traditionally been concentrated within metropolitan areas. In turn, this has led to higher rents, a higher overall cost of living, and long commutes for employees. For women, who often bear the burden of “invisible work” that goes into maintaining a household, the obstacles of living and working in a city can be even more daunting. All things considered, it’s no surprise women are some of the most likely candidates to apply to open remote positions.

Remote work allows employers to access global talent and hire from anywhere in the world. Employees can not only apply to and be hired by international companies, but they can also find more opportunities to travel around the world while maintaining their income. Many have used this opportunity to move closer to family or to leave expensive cities for areas with lower costs of living.

Improved accessibility of mentorship and networking opportunities.

Where professional and industry-specific conferences used to be hosted in person (and regularly required paid tickets to attend), the shift to remote work has revolutionized large events. Events have gone online, driving prices down and lowering barriers to entry to STEM professionals to expand their skill sets. 

Virtual events don’t require event producers to take on the more expensive aspects of conferences, such as renting a location, parking, and security. This lower cost of production is passed on to attendees, meaning more opportunity for those who otherwise would not have been able to afford to attend on top of travel costs or time off from work.

It’s true that organic connections can be more difficult to make at virtual conferences as opposed to in-person events. However, people who are proactive in their outreach and engaged with the content of these events enjoy great opportunities to meet leaders in their industries and make new connections.

(Looking for the world’s best conference for remote work and global HR? Sign up to attend Remote Connect this April!)

What obstacles do women in STEM face in the remote work world?

Despite the benefits, there are still several opportunities for improvement within the remote working world for women. Issues women and face in remote work often include:

  • Disproportionate responsibilities at home, including childcare and household labor
  • Gender-based harassment or discrimination, which is especially common for LGBTQ+ individuals
  • Expectations for women to perform administrative work outside their roles, like taking notes in remote meetings or relaying messages
  • A lack of representation in company leadership

Understanding the root of these issues and how they affect women in STEM fields can not only shine a light on potential remedies, but also help to protect against similar issues in the future. While STEM continues to undergo a slow shift in women’s opportunities in the workforce, there is still a lot of ground left to cover.

What can STEM businesses do to lessen the gender gap through remote work?

Remote work has already helped more women access STEM careers, but there are things businesses can do to welcome more women into these roles — and to retain them. 

1. Establish better remote work goals, deadlines, and reviews.

Remote work highlights the value of measuring employees based on production instead of hours spent at work. While it is important not to hold office and remote workers to different standards, note that work may get done differently and at different rates depending on each individual’s work style.

Shifting toward more equitable measurement and performance analysis structures allows companies to conduct fairer reviews of their team members. Everyone should be measured equally using criteria that do not favor one side over another. This is a great opportunity for managers to examine their own biases so they do not unconsciously favor employees they see in the office over employees who work elsewhere.

2. Be more accommodating through flexible work hours and environments.

Consider employee expectations both during the workday and outside of it. Employers operating with a hybrid or remote model must answer culture questions like:

  • Are employees expected to be on the clock during specific hours?
  • Are there options for flexible working hours depending on different employee needs?
  • Are there recurring, required meetings that could be reworked to be more flexible?
  • Could more meetings be canceled in favor of asynchronous work?
  • What are expectations around answering messages outside working hours?

Simply allowing employees to work from home without considering changes to meeting structures or working hours is a recipe for disaster. Companies must trust their employees to do great work instead of micromanaging them. Another great reason to measure performance based on output instead of hours.

3. Provide relevant, targeted training to people leaders.

Intentionally train managers on the best ways to support remote workers. As Remote’s CEO Job van der Voort likes to say, “You don’t have to smell people to manage them.” Managing remote employees is not all that different from managing in-office employees, but remote work can expose bad management practices quickly.

Leaders should focus on developing their employees, recognizing microaggressions and harassment, and ensuring every member of staff has equal opportunity. Not only will these initiatives help employees feel supported and heard, but doing so will also create a more positive, welcoming environment for all.

Training also means development: creating an environment in which women’s accomplishments are recognized and those women are promoted based on the merit of their work. Promoting and supporting the great women in STEM already within your organization is the best way to attract more brilliant team members and keep your current ones on board.

4. Improve networking and mentorship opportunities.

Growth-focused STEM businesses should be investing in mentorship, leadership training, and other networking opportunities (particularly for employees working remotely). There are a number of simple practices employers can incorporate to facilitate this learning and development:

  • Hosting events, seminars, and conferences
  • Offering to send employees to remote and in-person conferences
  • Providing a learning and development allowance 
  • Inviting industry professionals to speak to staff remotely
  • Developing a structured mentorship program 

Especially for women working remotely, these events offer opportunities to connect with other women in their field and demonstrate how management sees and supports them. Professional development allowances are an excellent perk to help employees grow their skills in new ways, and structured mentorship programs can help employees identify areas in which they would like to improve.

5. Establish and practice zero-tolerance policies for harassment.

Working remotely does not automatically end harassment for women and LGBTQ+ employees at work. Toxicity can easily infiltrate remote companies the same way it can physical offices. In fact, the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic actually led to increased harassment for women and LGBTQ+ individuals in many cases, per Project Include.

Businesses with remote workforces must be active in how they communicate and enforce their anti-harassment policies. To ensure employees feel comfortable speaking up, companies may consider creating internal advocacy groups or allowing employees to do so on their own. When an employee reports harassment, the company must act swiftly to investigate the claims and decisively to ensure workers feel safe. Not only is protecting workers the right thing to do, but if harassers are allowed to continue, they will create a hostile environment for everyone.

Millions of brilliant women around the world already enjoy successful careers in STEM. The challenge for businesses is not to open the door but to support those who have opened it themselves.