Employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in the United States is not equitable. Women, particularly Black and Hispanic women, are underrepresented in many sub-sectors of STEM and face larger wage gaps than in other fields. They are also far likelier than men and women in other fields to report workplace discrimination, including feeling isolated, being treated as incompetent, and getting passed over for promotions.

These inequities are not new. STEM’s lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is often attributed in part to a “leaky pipeline”—the idea that despite interest and the ability to succeed in STEM careers, women tend not to pursue or remain in them. This metaphor, which has circulated for decades, draws attention to decision-making moments when women divert from STEM paths, such as when declaring an undergraduate major or starting a family. But while life decisions like these have ripple effects on women’s careers—and while we need to better support them and others historically excluded from STEM to enter and remain in the field—the lack of diversity in STEM isn’t just about individual choices. It’s also about systemic barriers and layers of biases.

The impact of these barriers and biases extends beyond workplaces; they shape STEM products and innovations themselves. Multiple studies have shown that gender and racial bias in product design can have significant, even deadly, effects. Examples include seatbelts that don’t protect shorter drivers from accidents, PPE equipment that doesn’t fit the faces of female nurses, and even body armor that doesn’t effectively protect women in law enforcement. An emerging body of evidence suggests that we can trace product bias to a lack of inclusion in product design teams. A study that analyzed biomedical patents filed in the United States between 1976 and 2010, for example, found that teams made up of all-male inventors were substantially less likely to apply for patents for female consumer products compared to all-women teams.

We propose three strategies that can effectively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for women, especially women of color, in STEM in the United States. These include reframing the face of technology, scaling up early career interventions, and reforming recruitment and workplace culture. These strategies are based on more than 60 first-hand accounts of women of color working in STEM fields; 500 first-hand accounts of women leaders across sectors; a review of literature on diversity in STEM; and our collective experiences as strategists, innovators, and women’s rights experts. Each strategy targets the systems and structures that shape STEM fields. Together, they form a set of actionable steps that executive directors, school administrators, university deans, CEOs of STEM companies, and others involved with STEM institutions can take to create change.

  1. Reframing the Face of Technology
  2. Scaling Up Early Career Interventions
  3. Reforming Recruitment and Workplace Culture

Read the full article about women in STEM leadership by Linda Calhoun, Shruthi Jayaram and Natasha Madorsky at Stanford Social Innovation Review.