How women in the sciences are inspiring a new generation
When Minjin Kim was working on a major product development for Chemours, she was one of only two women on a 10-person team.
At her first company, Dora Cheatham was the first woman to be a salesperson.
Jennifer Kmiec never had a woman as a supervisor in her corporate career.
Their stories are emblematic of the state of many science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields where the representation of women is far below their 51% demographic majority, but that historic challenge has slowly been improving.
In 1970, only 8% of STEM workers nationwide were women. Today, about one in three STEM workers are women, with that representation increasing about 5 percentage points in the last five years.
The scientific industries still have a way to go to grow, develop and retain female scientists, however, and in Delaware there are several programs and initiatives underway to do just that.
The state of affairs
Since the late 1990s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, a nonprofit that studies and advocates for women in the sciences.
But women’s participation in science and engineering at the undergraduate level significantly differs by specific field of study. Women earn a majority of bachelor’s degrees in psychology, biological sciences, and social sciences, but they earn only 24% in engineering, 21% in computer science, and 24% in physics.
There are many reasons for that gap, but history and stereotypes all play a part, according to researchers.
STEM fields are often viewed as masculine, and therefore teachers and parents often underestimate girls’ math abilities starting as early as preschool, according to the American Association of University Women, which has studied the trend. With white men long dominating the jobs in the sciences, corporate culture has often been unsupportive of women and minorities, which subsequently has limited the number of role models for young girls.
In the last decade, a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in corporate America has convinced many of Delaware’s largest chemical engineering companies to hire more women to their ranks and be transparent in their results.
As of 2021, about 28% of DuPont’s workers are women, while W. L. Gore & Associates counts about 40% among its ranks. Solenis’ workforce is about 24% female, while Chemours has about 21%.
Kim, 35, the global market leader for Chemours’ stationary air conditioning, heat pump, and chiller segments, said that she found the culture at the Wilmington-based chemical producer to be supportive of diverse viewpoints, including an eager young female Korean immigrant. The company has announced goals of a 35% global female workforce and a 50% representation at the director level by 2030.
“In Korea when it comes to work culture, a lot is driven by age and experience. Here, you are just viewed by what you can bring to the table,” she said.
The confidence gap
For many women, a persistent lack of confidence in how they compare, often to male coworkers, keeps them from climbing the corporate ladder and even increasingly to leave the industry altogether.
Kim said that she has felt that anxiety and some of her colleagues have expressed it as well.
“There’s this kind of internalization of expectations that we need to be 200% competent, to be perfect, before you even consider applying for another job. But when the people around you see you grow over time, they recognize your accomplishments,” she said.
Dora Cheatham, executive director of the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance that represents the state’s chemical industry, acknowledged that pressure as well, saying her early career role as a chemical salesperson for a small firm was a “very difficult experience.”
“Even though a lot of the salespeople in my company didn’t necessarily have technical degrees, I still kind of had to fight for my position. It was a case of working twice as hard to be acknowledged as a member of the group,” she recalled.
Helen Stimson, a former chemical industry executive and Delaware BioScience Association leader who now works to connect industry and academia, said that the confidence gap is detrimental to efforts to diversify STEM fields.
That led Stimson to work with Kmiec, a biologist, to found Inspiring Women in STEM about 12 years ago. Since then, the nonprofit has run annual conferences and quarterly workshops that bring together hundreds of female STEM professionals who can share their experiences, develop networks, find mentors and hear from other leaders – all with an eye of showing women that they are not alone in their experiences.
“Our biggest concern is when all that hard work has been done, the very last thing we want is for people to opt out because they don’t feel like they’re in an inclusive work environment. They don’t feel appreciated. They don’t know how to advocate for themselves,” Stimson said.
Reaching the youth
Stimson noted that corporate efforts to increase diversity in their workforces are only effective if the workers exist, and women continue to be underrepresented in some of the most in-demand degree programs like engineering, physics and computer science.
“We believe very strongly that you have to see it to be it. Women, especially young women of color, need to see examples of themselves in these careers,” added Kmiec, who co-founded the Million Women Mentors chapter in Delaware with Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long.
That nonprofit connects female STEM professionals with young women to mentor their pursuit of STEM careers. Last year, it hosted a two-week, after-school immersion program that taught girls ages 11 to 16 about cybersecurity, agricultural tech, robotics, drones and more.
Chemours has been a local leader in exposing a new generation of children to STEM, investing $4 million into a ChemFEST partnership with EastSide Charter School and Serviam Girls Academy in Wilmington’s neglected Riverside community.
The donation will help with construction of EastSide’s STEM Hub, which is now underway and will support programming for students and the greater community in a partnership with the Wilmington Public Library. It also supports programming at the all-girls Serviam middle school, where programming aims to impart lessons on chemistry, math, physics and engineering.
Growing up in Korea, Chemours’ Kim said she was always interested in the sciences because her brother is a bioscientist and her father was a civil engineer. That family connection left a lasting impression on her, even though women are still a minority of STEM students in the Asian country.
“My dad has such a pure joy and interest in bridges and tunnels that he would turn around on a trip just to go back and look at a bridge,” she recalled.
When she entered high school in Korea, where students are required to choose a science course track or a liberal arts track and are divided by gender, Kim said she chose the sciences to follow her passions. While there were about five classes of boys in the track, her class of about 30 girls were the only ones.
In college, Kim estimated that women account for one in three chemical engineering students, but in her mechanical engineering program it was far fewer – about three in 200 students.
Kim said she hopes to help young girls understand that a STEM career doesn’t have to be in a lab and can open a world of opportunity – quite literally, she moved across the world.
“I think for young girls there is a sense of STEM being the safety goggles, lab coat, etc., but I studied chemical engineering and was able to keep up my career while going to sales, marketing, and business development,” she said.
That focus is part of DESCA’s Ready to Launch program, a monthly meeting series that connects University of Delaware and Delaware State University students to industry leaders to discuss career tracks, emerging topics and more. Those meetings, which have led to job offers, are often now including more disciplines adjacent to STEM fields, Cheatham said.
“Understanding how business works, how revenue is generated through technology, how products are taken to market – those skills are becoming increasingly important to companies,” she said.
What’s at stake
According to federal data, STEM careers earn nearly double that of non-STEM fields, or $100,900 versus $55,260 on average, as of 2022. Jobs in the sciences are also expected to grow at more than twice the rate than non-STEM jobs in the U.S. over the next decade, providing ample employment opportunities.
Such a significant difference in pay scale and job growth can produce meaningful generational change, especially for families in underrepresented minorities.
Kmiec noted that it isn’t purely about economics though, as having a greater STEM-educated populace can also help change the public conversation and civic engagement.
“We’ve seen things like vaccine denialism and anti-science efforts in recent years that are just having such a negative impact,” she said. “Making all young people aware of the scientific method and the thinking behind science can only help us as a society.”
“We need a diverse set of minds to tackle some of the health care problems or climate problems that are facing the nation,” she added.
Kmiec recommended early exposure to sciences for young girls, even at just a few years old, and to encourage them to explore problem-solving skills and natural ecosystems.
“Anytime you can get out into nature it’s a way to expose kids to that natural curiosity that they have. I got interested in the sciences through yearly trips to the ocean,” she said.