Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors

Key Messages from a National Academies Report

The Problem

Although the absolute number of women earning degrees across science, engineering, and medical (STEMM) fields has increased in recent years, women—especially women of color—are underrepresented relative to their presence in the workforce and the U.S. population. The consequences of not addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEMM include:

We face a national labor shortage in many STEMM professions, particularly in technical fields, that cannot be filled unless institutions and organizations recruit from a broad and diverse talent pool.

Research shows that more diverse teams generate more innovative solutions to problems, publish higher impact articles, and raise a company’s bottom line. In other words, there are opportunity costs to perpetuating a scientific workforce that lacks diversity.

We are losing talent as a result of discrimination, unconscious bias, and sexual harassment, which often prevents women from pursuing careers in STEMM.

Barriers to Women in STEMM

Bias, discrimination, and harassment are major drivers of the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and medicine. National patterns of underrepresentation vary by career stage, race and ethnicity, and discipline. Biases and barriers often manifest differently across different STEMM disciplines.

Representation Disparity of Women at Different Career Stages across STEM Disciplines

Representation Disparity of Women at Different Career Stages across STEM Disciplines

Representation disparity between men and women across STEM disciplines. Relative to men, women are underrepresented at all career stages (bachelor’s, doctorate, postdoctoral, and professor) across nearly every STEM discipline. Dotted line indicates parity. Graphic visualization is based on data from surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation (2016-2017).

Representation Disparity of Women at Different Career Stages in Medicine

Women in academic medicine. Although women are at or near parity for medical school graduates, there continues to be a decline of women in later, more senior career stages.

Women in academic medicine. Although women are at or near parity for medical school graduates, there continues to be a decline of women in later, more senior career stages. SOURCE: Association of American Medical Colleges, The State of Women in Academic Medicine: The Pipeline and Pathways to Leadership, 2013-14, Courtesy of Diana Lautenberger, available at

Click on a discipline to learn more.

Mathematics Computer Science Chemistry Medicine Engineering Physics Biology

Barriers to Women With Multiple Identities

Women of multiple marginalized identities experience intensified forms of bias and discrimination in STEMM as a result of the complex, cumulative ways in which multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism) intersect.

Women of color (with the exception of Asian American women) remain underrepresented in STEMM relative to their representation in the U.S. population and relative to white women. In addition to experiences of heightened bias, sexual harassment, and microagressions, women of color in STEMM frequently experience:

  • isolation (i.e., experience a sense of invisibility or hypervisibility) and exclusion from social network supports usually available to men
  • a sense of “not belonging” in STEMM
  • “racial battle fatigue”, which is the “cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions” that adversely affects the health and achievements of students and faculty of color
  • racial harassment
  • cumulative disadvantage; such as interest on debt, and disadvantages, such as lower salary and delayed promotion, which accrue over time
  • expectations that they must work harder, including working extended hours, to fit the ideal worker norm despite having had fewer role models who have successfully managed these expectations, fewer culturally competent mentors, and less access to informal professional networks
  • People with disabilities are underrepresented in STEMM from K–12 through higher education and continuing within the workforce, even though they report similar levels of interest in pursuing STEMM as those without disabilities (~25 percent).
  • Women with disabilities encounter unique obstacles related to their disabilities that may be responsible for their disproportionate underrepresentation in STEMM careers (i.e., lack of physical access to laboratory and classroom spaces, lack of equipment that can be used by persons with sensory and motor disabilities, lack of inclusive pedagogy in large lecture-style courses, a shortage of disabled role models in STEMM, and a higher likelihood of negative mentoring interactions).
  • Women who identify as LGBTQIA face significant barriers in STEMM, in part due to their intersectional identities—being both a woman and a sexual minority.
  • Studies show that early-career academics (e.g., postdoctoral researchers, medical residents, laboratory technicians or managers) reported lower openness to colleagues about their sexual identity than those at later career stages (e.g., assistant, associate, and full professors). This level of openness also varied by STEM field as the study indicated that participants working in earth sciences, engineering, mathematics, and psychology reported being less out to colleagues than participants working in the life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences.
  • In addition, individuals with minority genders, sexual orientation, or both experience higher rates of sexual harassment and assault than cisgender straight women individuals.
  • Research indicates that international women students in U.S. institutions, along with their male counterparts, face discrimination in STEMM fields as a result of their national origin and cultural differences.
  • Despite increasing numbers of international women pursing STEMM, there is relatively little known about the barriers they face. Climate surveys that examine a cross-cultural perspective are important to better understand the complex experiences of these students.

Possible Solutions

Despite well documented biases and barriers to women in STEMM, the scholarly research and real world examples point to promising practices that can support women in STEMM (i.e., educational interventions and effective practices to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM).

Although these promising practices offer valuable information, the report acknowledges that most of the research on the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in the STEMM workplace is focused on the experiences of white women at research intensive universities. More research is needed on the experiences of women of color and women of other multiple marginalized identities at a range of institutional types.


Active Learning STEMM Role Models Growth Mindset Interventions Gender-Balanced Classroom Interactions Societal Impact of STEMM Educational Interventions


Inclusive Retention Strategies Improving Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement Effective Mentorship Prevent Sexual Harassment Sponsorship Unbiased Promotion Metrics Unbiased Recruitment Strategies

Key Conditions for Change

Although the report highlights that there is no “one-size-fits all” approach to address the underrepresentation of women in all institutional contexts, it does highlight a common set of conditions that support successful institutional adoption of practices to improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women, including:

Committed leadership at all levels, especially from those in positions of authority (such as policy makers, college and university presidents and deans, and individual faculty that manage training programs and large laboratories) who can implement, allocate resources toward, and monitor progress on new policies and strategies that close the gender gap.

Dedicated financial and human resources—including new or re-directed funds and appropriately compensated individuals in positions of power and authority whose work is dedicated toward opening doors to opportunity and success for women.

Accountability and data collection—especially when used as a tool to inform and incentivize progress.

Adoption of an intersectional approach that explicitly and concretely addresses the challenges faced by women of color and other groups who encounter multiple, cumulative forms of bias and discrimination.


Improving the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in STEMM will require systemic change driven through the actions of a range of stakeholders (e.g., government, colleges/universities, and professional societies). The committee’s recommendations are intended to support such systemic change through an interconnected process with three main components: drivers, change process, and iteration over time.

Transparency and accountability; rewards, resources, and recognition; and committed leadership can provide positive and negative incentives that increase the likelihood that institutions will take action and adopt a change process (Recommendations 1, 2, 6, 7, and 8)

The change process involves:

  • Using qualitative and quantitative data collection to “diagnose” the shortcomings of an institution in terms of recruitment, retention, and advancement of women;
  • piloting new strategies that have been successful in other, similar institutional contexts to “treat” the institution’s issues;
  • repeating the data collection and monitoring processes to evaluate whether the treatment has been effective;
  • institutionalizing effective interventions to sustain leadership transitions, budget fluctuations, and other potential disruptors; and
  • filling knowledge gaps to provide additional information on the efficacy of certain strategies and practices (Recommendation 3,4,5, 9).

To build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive STEMM enterprise, institutions will have to invest in an iterative cycle of action and evaluation that supports the development and institutionalization of strategies and practices that improve the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women, especially women of color, within the particular context of the institution.