Increasing STEM Workforce Diversity to Positively Impact Innovation

While most industries were directly impacted, upended, or almost wholly restructured by COVID-19, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) sectors maintained consistent employee satisfaction and overall success1. In addition, through the course of the pandemic, STEM sectors have maintained their exponential growth.

This continual growth trend, mainly due to technological innovation2, has contributed to a noticeable disparity between the number of available roles and qualified workers. But is this the only factor that’s contributed to this disparity? 

Factors Causing the Gap Between STEM Growth and Employment

This disparity seems to also result from the STEM workforce’s lack of expansion and diversification. And while diversity has been found to increase innovation and performance3, a few factors seem to be holding STEM sectors back from diversity-driven innovation. The STEM workforce is primarily White, and male (67 percent and 72 percent, respectively)[4], and a noticeable lack of talent pipelines keep potential workers from filling available roles.

However, in recent years, diversity initiatives for STEM talent pipelines have become increasingly prevalent. But the percentages of non-white workers in STEM haven’t seen any drastic change within the last five years. Why exactly is that?

The Substantial Disparity for Women and Minorities in STEM

First, there seems to be an apparent issue with the distribution of diversity across STEM sectors. While women comprise 27 percent of the STEM workforce in the United States, percentages of women vary widely across different STEM sectors5. For example, women make up 74 percent of healthcare-related positions but only 15 percent and 25 percent of engineering and computer roles. This proportional difference is significant since engineering and computer science comprise 80 percent of the STEM workforce.

Furthermore, while women received 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 53 percent of STEM degrees, women only received 22 percent and 19 percent of engineering and computer science degrees, respectively6. These percentages could depict implicit and explicit barriers that disincentivize women from pursuing certain STEM degrees for growing fields7.

Similarly, with both Hispanic American and African American workers in STEM sectors, percentages remain comparatively low. Proportions of total employment versus STEM employment reflect this disparity8. African American adults comprise 11 percent of the overall workforce, but only 9 percent of STEM, while Hispanic Americans comprise 17 percent of the total workforce, but only 8 percent of the STEM workforce9

Implicit and Explicit Biases and Confidence-Building

Although educational initiatives aiming to incentivize, familiarize, and create access for women and people of color have become increasingly commonplace in the last five years, employee statistics don’t yet reflect this shift10. With increasing evidence showing that workplace diversity impacts and increases innovation11, STEM sectors stand to gain significant benefit from diversifying. So, what has caused this gap in representation?

A few key factors seem to contribute to this disparity. First, confidence appears to play a critical role in a potential employee’s willingness to apply for STEM jobs. This was demonstrated in a recent study that showed differences in confidence levels when testing by gender – but no significant differences between actual performance12. Studies have also shown that discrimination discourages students from pursuing potential degrees and fields of interest and negatively impacts academic performance13.

Lack of Access to Educational Pipelines

The number of universities partnering with businesses and engaging underrepresented communities continues to increase, but the intended outcomes have yet to be achieved.  Numerous organizations and universities strive to diversify talent pipelines through various initiatives designed to expand access to STEM pipelines.

IBM has partnered with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to diversify quantum computing14. Cubic, an American public transportation and defense corporation, initiated a returners program – a pipeline for interning students to return to organizations as workers post-graduation – designed to incentivize and adequately prepare talent for STEM roles15. Boeing is working with Virginia Tech Innovation to expand the potential STEM workforce population16.

Efforts like these are a great start. But to ensure that the STEM workforce is proportionally and adequately diversified, it will require a considerable investment in metric and study-based educational initiatives if we are going to move these numbers in the right direction.

How to Effectively Diversify the STEM Workforce

To ensure that diversity in STEM catches up with STEM’s immense employment growth, educational and organizational initiatives will need to focus on improving confidence and performance levels. The incentive is evident for both employees and employers to make these shifts happen. Given that diversity in the workplace has been shown to have a direct, positive impact on innovation and employees’ performance17, employers have much to gain from investing in diversity initiatives.

If both employers and educational institutions commit their focus to ensuring great talent ends up in equivalently great work, innovation in many of the burgeoning STEM sectors will be unmatched. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can make inroads in building your STEM workforce’s diversity, AllSTEM has the tools and experience to help. Find out more at https://www.allstemconnections.com/.


[1] https://www.smartbrief.com/original/2021/01/stem%E2%80%99s-post-covid-moment

[2] https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-10/why-computer-occupations-are-behind-strong-stem-employment-growth.htm

[3] https://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16385

[4] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/science-and-engineering-labor-force/women-and-minorities-in-the-s-e-workforce#minorities-in-the-s-e-workforce

[5] https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/01/women-making-gains-in-stem-occupations-but-still-underrepresented.html#:~:text=Despite%20making%20up%20nearly%20half,men%20still%20dominated%20the%20field

[6] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/14/6-facts-about-americas-stem-workforce-and-those-training-for-it/

[7]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274221548_Perceived_Gender_and_RacialEthnic_Barriers_to_STEM_Success

[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/14/6-facts-about-americas-stem-workforce-and-those-training-for-it/

[9] https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/04/01/stem-jobs-see-uneven-progress-in-increasing-gender-racial-and-ethnic-diversity/

[10] https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/04/01/stem-jobs-see-uneven-progress-in-increasing-gender-racial-and-ethnic-diversity/

[11] https://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16385

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/lack-of-confidence-among-women-gender-gap-in-stem-tech-2020-10

[13]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274221548_Perceived_Gender_and_RacialEthnic_Barriers_to_STEM_Success

[14] https://www.ibm.com/blogs/research/2020/09/ibm-hbcu-quantum-center/

[15] https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/cubic-prioritizes-workforce-diversity-with-new-inclusive-stem-returners-program-in-the-u-k-1030362602

[16] https://vt.edu/innovationcampus/News/2021/05/innovation-campus-boeing-commitment.html

[17] https://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16385