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OPINION

Why women should pursue STEM-focused careers

During the pandemic, women in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations were more resistant to job losses and stressors that would otherwise push them out of the workforce.

Maura Eckler, 9, uses a robotic commercial arm to move blocks in an interactive display at the Robot Block Party put on by MassRobotics in Boston on Oct. 2.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented overwhelming challenges to economies and workforces in Massachusetts and nationwide. Women, however, have been hit harder, losing 5.4 million jobs nationally, about 1 million more than men.

The majority of the retail and hospitality sectors — businesses that were forced to close across the country at the height of the pandemic — are made up predominantly of women.

Coupled with the pandemic’s devastating impact in these industry sectors, 1 in 3 mothers contemplated downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely due to child-care needs or remote-learning demands. Women have never opted out of the workforce at a higher rate. This opt-out phenomenon threatens decades of progress for working women.

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The long-term economic impacts of the pandemic on women’s careers and success are extremely concerning and could have lasting impacts on both the Commonwealth’s economy and its available opportunities for women if policy makers and educators don’t intervene now to correct these crippling job disparities.

There is one bright spot: Women in STEM careers were more resistant to job losses and stressors pushing them out of the workforce during the pandemic. Women in science, technology, engineering, and math occupations have more job security and flexibility in their work life, and in some cases, the number of women in STEM jobs grew in 2020.

These jobs are more resilient to labor market fluctuations and able to withstand economic shocks. This silver lining bodes well for Massachusetts, which outpaces the nation in the concentration of STEM jobs.

Approximately 600,000 people work in STEM occupations in Massachusetts, and they make up one-fifth — about 17 percent — of the Commonwealth’s labor force, higher than the US average of 14 percent.

During the pandemic, STEM-related industries drove Massachusetts’ economic growth, up 6.9 percent from the fourth quarter of 2020 through the first quarter of 2021. This growth was led by the professional, scientific, and services industry, which has the highest concentration of STEM jobs across all industries.

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Growth in these jobs will outpace average job growth and is projected to account for 40 percent of total employment increases in Massachusetts. According to 2018-2028 Massachusetts job growth projections, STEM occupations will grow at 7.2 percent versus 3 percent across all occupations.

But Massachusetts and the nation need more women in STEM jobs to potentially insulate them from economic shocks like the one we all just experienced.

In Massachusetts, STEM jobs appear to be evenly distributed, with overall parity in the number employed — 48.8 percent women and 51.2 percent men — but looking closer at the four leading STEM industry sectors, the picture is much different. The higher-paying job sectors have bigger gender imbalances.

While women make up 78 percent of licensed health care providers and technician occupations in Massachusetts, they account for only 50 percent of life, physical, and social sciences, 28 percent of computer and mathematical, and 18 percent of architecture and engineering occupations. This means outside of health care, there are roughly three men to every woman in STEM jobs in Massachusetts — across the nation, the disparity is no better. The National Council of Women in Technology’s scorecard shows women hold only 19 percent of computer engineering jobs, 20 percent of computer programming jobs, and 26 percent of computer science jobs.

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The Baker-Polito administration is working to encourage more young girls into STEM studies, and we are providing more opportunities for them to pursue STEM-focused careers. We work across public and private sectors to strengthen students’ foundational skills and expand course offerings, and we’ve invested $100 million to upgrade capital equipment at schools. We have expanded career and college pathways for young people to pursue industry-recognized credentials, and we deepened partnerships with employers and higher-education institutions to offer more work-based learning experiences. But there is more we could do if more businesses stepped up to offer internships in STEM fields.

This week, we will hold the fourth annual Massachusetts STEM Week with schools, colleges, community-based organizations, and businesses, which we hope will offer learners of all ages the opportunity to see themselves in STEM through hands-on projects and education.

The best way to guard against unforeseen economic impacts for current and future generations of Massachusetts women is to provide more young girls with STEM opportunities.

COVID-19 has highlighted many disparities and inequities in our communities while also demonstrating the critical role that STEM industries and professionals serve. Supporting women in STEM fields should be one of the ways we tackle these inequities head-on.

Karyn Polito is lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and cochair of the Massachusetts STEM Advisory Council.