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Succeeding as a Woman in STEM: Strategies, Resources & More

You’re committed to pursuing an advanced degree in STEM, regardless of the challenges that face women in the field. Keep reading for strategies and resources to help you overcome them.

Written By

Kenya McCullum

Last updated

Feb 06, 2024

Women have made innumerable groundbreaking contributions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields for decades, etching cracks into the glass ceiling that threatened to hold them back. Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first to ever earn a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard; Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to earn a Doctor of Medicine in the United States; across the pond, Katharine Burr Blodgett was the first woman to earn a physics doctorate from Cambridge University before becoming the first woman to work at General Electric’s research lab. 

Despite the achievements of women like these, many doctoral degree programs in STEM disciplines remain woefully devoid of female representation. Although 48 percent of STEM research doctorates were awarded to women during the 2017-2018 academic year, the majority of them were in health science (77 percent) and life science (53 percent) disciplines. The same data revealed that women earned only 36 percent of physical science, 28 percent of engineering, 25 percent of mathematics, and 23 percent of computer science degrees at the doctoral level in the 2017-2018 academic year. 

By now you’re likely acquainted with the challenges this lack of representation can pose for women like you who do enroll in doctoral degree programs in STEM. In this guide, we’ll explore these issues in greater depth, offer a look at the characteristics of female-friendly graduate schools, get the perspectives of women who have been led successful careers in STEM, and provide resources that can help you in your own degree and career. Keep reading to gain the insights that will help you etch your name alongside the women who came before you and pave the way for the women who will come next.

Challenges & Strategies to Succeeding as a Woman in STEM

The STEM field is filled with female giants on whose shoulders you and other students stand, but there are still a number of challenges you’ll face as you travel down this career path, including during your graduate studies. In this section, we’ll address some of the most common challenges you’ll face and strategies for overcoming them.

Compounded Racial, Gender, and Socioeconomic Biases

The experience of being a member of an underrepresented group in STEM graduate programs is only compounded by one’s racial identity and socioeconomic status. For example, according to The Education Trust, although overall doctoral degree attainment for Black women increased between 2010 and 2019, it was still only at 5.4 percent by the end of the decade (up from 4.3 percent). Additionally, despite the slight increase in doctorates awarded to Black women overall, STEM doctoral degree attainment dropped from 1.3 percent to 1.1 percent. Similarly, the organization found that STEM doctoral degree attainment among Latinas had grown by just .3 percent — 1.7 percent by 2019, up from 1.4 percent in 2010.

Strategy

It will be important for you to lean into support systems available inside and outside of your institution. There may be school groups for STEM students who are members of minority populations. You can also seek out and participate in professional organizations that cater to specific demographics.

Imposter Syndrome

Despite being among the best and brightest students out there, women in STEM doctoral programs may experience imposter syndrome, which is the sense of being inadequate regardless of having achieved considerable success. Despite your many accomplishments, you may feel like a fraud, as if your achievements weren’t significant or well-deserved. Even female STEM professors aren’t immune from experiencing imposter syndrome, according to CBE: Life Sciences Education.

Strategy

To combat imposter syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young of the Impostor Syndrome Institute (ISI) suggests that women pay close attention to the thoughts they’re having about themselves — which will influence their feelings — and take a look at the bigger picture. In an interview with Technology Networks, she explains it this way: “I now emphasize to people that feelings are the last to change. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.”

Lack of Inclusive Environments

STEM departments in colleges and universities have a long-standing reputation of not being inclusive toward women and other minority groups. This contributes to female students’ feelings of being imposters and may have adverse effects on their academic performance.

Strategy

Women can seek out female spaces on campus to feel connected to their peers. Also, teaming up with a mentor who has been through what they’re experiencing can go a long way toward motivating students and helping them when they’re going through tough times.

Limiting Stereotypes & Assumptions

Being subjected to stereotypes and assumptions about females pursuing STEM fields can begin at a very young age. In fact, children as young as kindergarten age are conditioned to believe that scientists are male. This perception is difficult to shake — even by the time students reach graduate school — so you may encounter people who think you are not smart or competent enough to excel in STEM fields, or are too nice or emotional to do your job effectively.

Strategy

Some women combat stereotypes and disprove these misconceptions about their ability to succeed in STEM by sharing their stories of success. And while this is an effective way to dispel certain myths, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications points out that it’s also important for women to understand the root causes of these stereotypes so they can be addressed specifically and dismantled outright.

Underrepresentation in Leadership, Faculty, and Student Body

Only 28 percent of STEM professors at colleges and universities are women, and as a result, it may be challenging to identify the role models you need to motivate yourself as you earn your doctoral degree. This lack of representation — in the classroom and beyond — can factor into feelings of being an imposter.

Strategy

PLOS Computational Biology suggests that women in the STEM workforce band together in order to create solidarity. These alliances can go a long way toward creating trusting and supportive environments, making this a good piece of advice for women in graduate school and in the workplace.

Features of a Woman-Friendly STEM Program

The formatting, program requirements, and application eligibility differ greatly among PhD programs in Wisconsin. To help you understand these differences, the most popular doctoral types of programs are outlined below. Read on to learn about formatting options for online PhD programs in Wisconsin and decide which is right for you.

Diverse & Inclusive Environment

Diversity and inclusion go a long way to ensuring that female students feel comfortable in STEM programs. The solutions for a lack of diversity depend on individual schools and the specific challenges they face. For example, the American Association of University Women reports that Harvey Mudd College was able to increase the number of women earning its computing degree from 12 percent to roughly 40 percent by taking steps to attract more women into the program including recruiting from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference and providing research opportunities for female students.

Equitable Resource Allocation

Like most PhD students, you are likely conducting extensive research that requires top of the line equipment. Equitable access to resources can make a school much more attractive and position you for success in your doctoral program. Attending a program that receives funding earmarked for supporting female students or funding for your research through your university can go a long way toward your long-term success in the field.

Historically, for women, this funding for research has not been equitable. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, this disparity is so vast that female junior faculty members at colleges and universities receive an average of about $41,000 less in research grants from the National Institutes of Health than their male counterparts. Discrepancies like this make it even more important for schools to ensure female students can get the financial help they need to succeed throughout their educational and professional careers.

Flexibility in Workload and Expectations

One of the barriers that women face in STEM is being able to juggle their academic and personal obligations, from tackling a heavy workload in the office to shouldering the majority of childrearing duties. Women’s roles as their children’s primary caregivers means they often bear the brunt of workplace animosity when they take time off for a family emergencies — these hostile environments can negatively impact their wages and ability to advance in their careers. Women in academia face similar challenges as they balance their education with familial responsibilities. In short, schools that create policies that prioritize flexibility are more likely to attract, support, and retain female students.

Mentorship Opportunities

According to the National Science Foundation, mentorship in graduate school can go a long way toward preparing women for the challenges they’ll face throughout their careers. The organization advocates for mentorship that provides female students with advice about issues like work-life balance, salary negotiations, and scientific writing.

Mentorship provided in graduate school can be informal or through official programs. For example, the Womens Community Center at Stanford University has a STEM mentoring program for female graduate and undergraduate students. You can also find mentorship resources outside of school through organizations like Woman to Woman Mentoring, which provides services to students and women in the early stages of their careers.

Networking and Collaboration Opportunities

Schools that provide networking and collaboration opportunities can help women build their confidence as they connect with each other and current leaders in STEM fields. For example, Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering has a Women in STEM organization that provides networking, mentoring, and leadership activities to help students grow in the community. Similarly, the Center of Excellence for Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University offers opportunities for students to network with, and receive mentoring from, female leaders in the field.

Transparent Admission and Promotion Policies

To be considered woman-friendly, colleges and universities need to make it clear that they not only want female students in their STEM degree programs, but actively provide opportunities for women to work at their schools. To create an admissions process based on equity, Columbia University suggests that graduate schools adopt focused recruitment activities, including targeted promotion and marketing; fellowships and scholarships; and partnerships with undergraduate schools. Additionally, in its Guide to Equity-Based Graduate Admissions, Columbia suggests that graduate schools make their diversity statistics public; hire staff specifically to recruit members of historically-underrepresented groups; and provide implicit bias training to recruitment staff.

Spotlight: State University of New York at Buffalo

The State University of New York at Buffalo offers several degree programs in STEM disciplines, including doctoral degrees in physics, mathematics, biostatistics, and civil engineering. Women who pursue these degrees can rest assured that they’re entering an inclusive environment, thanks to the school’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program. Through WiSE, female STEM students can participate in a slate of activities designed to help them succeed in their studies. For example, the UB STEMinism group helps women of color navigate their unique intersectional challenges. Participants can take part in discussions, mentoring workshops, and professional development activities. Additionally, the NAVIGATE Project helps graduate students learn how to overcome bias and inequities in STEM professions. Finally, WiSE offers scholarships and fellowships to help financially support women in STEM programs.

The Future is Female: How to Make STEM More Inclusive

Like the women who have come before you, you can help pave the way for those who will follow in your footsteps in STEM disciplines. The following are some tips to help make your industry more inclusive.

Advocate for Fair Policies

Many schools and organizations have policies that are exclusionary toward women in STEM, such as inflexible schedules that do not accommodate busy working mothers. It’s important for you to understand these institutional barriers, both inside your school and beyond, and speak up about changes that need to be made to create woman-friendly environments. The more women’s voices are heard, the more likely change is to occur.

Collaborate with Professional Organizations

There are several organizations devoted to meeting the needs of women in STEM that you can become involved in. Groups like IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE), the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), some of which we’ll describe in greater detail below, bring women together to share their experiences, connect with each other, and participate in professional development. Becoming involved in these organizations can help strengthen your bond with other women and the industry as a whole.

Participate in Outreach Programs

Since children are often taught from an early age that girls don’t belong in STEM, outreach programs in schools can be an integral way of paving the path for future professionals, while helping to dispel harmful myths. By working with children directly, women in STEM can become an inspiration to girls who need role models they can emulate.

Provide Mentorship & Support

One of the most significant ways you can contribute to your profession while you earn your STEM doctorate is by becoming a mentor. Whether you work with women in undergraduate programs or girls who are still years away from entering college, you can support those following behind you and empower them to succeed. This can go a long way toward increasing diversity and inspiring future female STEM professionals.

Share Your Experiences & Challenges

By sharing your experiences — both good and bad — you can inspire others and effectuate the changes that need to be made in your industry. Although it may be difficult to share the challenges you have experienced, this is an important way to ensure that those who are interested in STEM know what they can achieve and help to shed light to problems that persist.

Scholarships & Resources for Women in STEM

As a woman in STEM, you’ll have to overcome a great deal of hurdles to become successful — not the least of which is the cost of education and your ability to find inclusive spaces where you can thrive. But these challenges don’t have to keep you from your goals. The following are scholarships and resources to help you finance your doctoral degree and form and nurture vital connections with other STEM professionals.

Scholarships

By sharing your experiences — both good and bad — you can inspire others and effectuate the changes that need to be made in your industry. Although it may be difficult to share the challenges you have experienced, this is an important way to ensure that those who are interested in STEM know what they can achieve and help to shed light to problems that persist.

Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers Scholarship

The Institute of Industrial & Systems Engineers offer scholarships and fellowships for graduate students who demonstrate excellence in academic performance, leadership abilities, and character. 

  • Amount: $1,000 to $3,500

Ralph W. Shrader Graduate Diversity Scholarship

This award is given to women and minority graduate students enrolled in STEM programs in disciplines such as mechanical engineering, information resource management, forensics science, astronomy, and mathematics.

  • Amount: $3,000

SWE Scholarship Program

Graduate students enrolled in an ABET-accredited program in a discipline related to engineering can qualify for this scholarship. Applicants must be enrolled in a program on a full-time basis.

  • Amount: $1,000 to $19,000

Women in Defense Scholar Program

Women interested in pursuing careers in national security or defense can receive this award. Students must have a 3.25 grade point average and demonstrate financial need to be considered.

  • Amount: $1,000

Resources & Organizations

Advancing Women in Science – Advancing Women in Science (AWIS) provides scholarships for female undergraduate and graduate students pursuing STEM degrees. The organization’s Distinguished Doctoral Research Scholarship provides $10,000 for research that shows the promise of making a significant contribution to one of the following disciplines: physical sciences, engineering, behavioral sciences, mathematics, or life sciences. Additionally, AWIS advocates on behalf of women in STEM fields and provides resources including a magazine and news briefs.

Anita Borg Institute – In 1987, Anita Borg founded an online community for women in technology to support each other. Since then, the Anita Borg Institute has grown and continues to work supporting and inspiring women in technology fields by collaborating with colleges and universitiesorganizations, and individualsMembers have access to mentorship services, an extensive content library, and events. 

Million Women Mentors – As an initiative of STEMconnector, which strives to connect different parts of the STEM community, the Million Women Mentors (MWM) is dedicated to providing mentorship that shapes women and girls into thriving STEM professionals. In addition to mentoring, the organization promotes gender parity for female workers in STEM fields and elevates the important contributions of women in these careers. There are also a variety of events organized by the group.


Society of Women Engineers – The Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, has been empowering women in the engineering field since it was founded in 1950. To help women succeed in the industry, the SWE provides professional development programs, networking events, mentorship opportunities, and advocacy services. The organization also offers scholarships for graduate and undergraduate engineering students.

Two Women in STEM Share Their Experiences

Kristin Scaplen, Assistant Professor, grew up in Connecticut and has lived in New England for much of her life. She received a B.S. in Biology and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Connecticut and her PhD in Neuroscience from Brown University. Prior to coming to Bryant, she spent her postdoc using sophisticated neurogenetic tools to study the persistence of memory in the context of alcohol use. She intends to continue investigating how neural circuits for pathologic memories are established and change with experience to ultimately guide maladaptive reward seeking.

Darby Dyar is the Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy at Mount Holyoke College and Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. Dyar is a mineralogist and spectroscopist interested in a wide range of problems relating to the evolution of the solar system, yielding more than 300 publications in peer-reviewed journals to date. She studies the redox state of iron and the abundance of hydrogen in solar system materials using Mössbauer, x-ray absorption, and FTIR spectroscopy. Dyar has pioneered use of machine learning tools to interpret spectroscopic data. She is the Deputy Principal Investigator on the VERITAS mission to Venus and was a participating scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory science team.

What made you want to pursue a STEM PhD?

Scaplen: A PhD in Neuroscience wasn’t always on my radar. When I initially enrolled in college, I was a pre-med student with aspirations of becoming a doctor. However, as my undergraduate career continued, I started getting involved with research, was introduced to neuroscience, and ultimately fell in love with the idea of asking your own questions and designing experiments to find the answers.

What was your experience like as a woman in your discipline?

Dyar: I had a hard time at MIT because of my lack of science background, but I worked hard to catch up. I had an amazing advisor/mentor who kept me going and believed in me — he is the only reason I survived there. I now recognize that many of my struggles were amplified by my own preconceived notions about whether or not I truly belonged there as a woman. When I started as a graduate student, there were no women faculty in my department, and only seven women graduate students out of 300. But I was fortunate in that MIT was actually pretty free of gender bias — they cared only about what was inside your head, not outside. MIT did eventually hire a woman professor in my department before I graduated, and she was wonderful. I’ll never forget that she bought me a card and a bottle of champagne when I defended my thesis. Only later did I realize how special that was.

Did you feel that your program and school were inclusive of female doctoral students? Was there anything you felt they could have improved upon?

Scaplen: Overall, I would say that my program was very inclusive of female doctoral students. I was in a unique position because I started my family while I was a graduate student. That experience highlighted the importance of supporting women in doctoral programs, but broadly science in general. The average age of a student when defending their dissertation is approximately 31, which coincides with when women are often considering starting a family and when their careers have the strongest trajectory in science…I was fortunate to have an incredibly supportive mentor who provided the flexibility and support I needed to continue my studies, but not everyone is so fortunate. The upside is that since I graduated the university has significantly increased their support of graduate students, including providing students with paid parental relief for an entire semester to care for a newly born infant or adopted child, childcare subsidy to help with the costs of childcare, and a backup childcare program for those unexpected moments. I hope more programs can follow their lead.

What is the current landscape for women pursuing STEM PhDs?

Dyar: The landscape has now changed dramatically, albeit not enough. There are now actual role models, like me, of women who have had successful careers while being married and raising children. I had no such role models. Many institutions now actively recruit women and minorities to apply for faculty positions, and then support them in those positions. Many institutions also work with women who have the “two-body problem” to try to make accommodations for their partners. But those solutions are still rarely beneficial to both parties. The research shows that women still bear the brunt of child-caring and rearing in most relationships. This is all too often a drag on their productivity unless they have incredibly supportive partners.

But biases and stereotypes remain firmly entrenched in the fields where I work—in a sense, these behaviors have simply “gone underground” and become more nuanced, but nonetheless damaging for the victims.

What advice do you have for women currently considering or pursuing STEM PhDs based on your experiences and observations?

Scaplen: Go for it! We need more women in STEM and we need more diversity in STEM. The only way to shatter the glass ceiling is to increase representation. My advice is to find a good mentor that you can trust. They will be vital to your success—mentors provide much needed advice and support. They can also help navigate obstacles and be your advocate.

How can the broader community, including educators, researchers, and industry professionals, contribute to changing the narrative and perceptions around women in STEM?

Dyar: Never assume that the playing field is level for women and minorities. It is not. Conversely, I believe that most women and minorities do not want special treatment to help them get ahead, they just want equitable treatment. So never tell a woman or minority person that they are being hired, funded, or given an opportunity because of their special status. This is incredibly insulting.

Treat complaints from women and minorities around possible discrimination with dignity and openness. Validate their concerns, and make sure there are consequences for professionals who cross the line into misconduct. Don’t look the other way when you see something happening in your department, even if you are not directly involved—ignoring bad behavior is the same as condoning it.

What role can male colleagues and mentors play in actively supporting and promoting gender diversity within STEM PhD programs?

Scaplen: Male colleagues and mentors can play an active role in supporting and promoting gender diversity. Male allies as colleagues are critical to help point out inequity in action and help amplify women’s voices in a conversation. Male mentors should work to better understand the issues affecting their mentees, reflect on their own biases and how these biases may impact their mentees to better support diversity in their programs.

What do you see as the long-term impact of increasing the representation of women in STEM PhD programs, not only on academia, but also on industry and society as a whole?

Dyar: The research is crystal clear on this. The future of our society and the success of STEM fields depends on the representation of all voices from our citizenry.