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What the N.C. Department of Commerce is doing to increase the number of women in STEM careers

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In 2021, North Carolina had 300,000 science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, yet women accounted for only 28% of them.

That’s according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce, which spoke at the House Select Committee on Advancing Women in STEM on Wednesday.

Women account for about half of all jobs in North Carolina, which makes their low showing in STEM professions notable.

Emily Roach, director of policy and planning at the Department of Commerce, talked about its efforts to do something about this, including Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders’ launch of the First in Talent plan. That plan “includes strategies to enable more women to enter the workforce by increasing access to childcare, education, training, and family friendly work environments,” according to the presentation.

“Advancing opportunities for women in STEM is a real point of passion for Secretary Sanders,” Roach told the committee.

She talked about a few other initiatives launched by the department, including a mentorship program for female high school students to get them interested in STEM jobs in government.

She also talked about the department’s attempt to critique its own role in the STEM gender gap. The department took part in the Wake Invests in Women Challenge, which was organized by Wake Technical Community College and had employees of various organizations do a self assessment to look at diversity in gender and ethnicity when it comes to both STEM and leadership positions. Roach said that the Department of Commerce found it was doing a good job in that regard when it comes to leadership positions — but not so much when it came to STEM.

Getting more women into STEM fields is important because 71% of North Carolina STEM employers say they have trouble with finding the workers they need.

Screenshot of Department of Commerce presentation.

Meanwhile, the growth in STEM jobs will be twice as fast at non-STEM jobs during the next 10 years. It’s projected that there will be more than 27,000 STEM job openings each year.

Screenshot of Department of Commerce presentation.

So has North Carolina improved at all over time when it comes to getting women into STEM fields?

According to the Department of Commerce, more women have taken on STEM jobs since 2011, but the numbers are still relatively small and women are still considered a minority in the industry.

Screenshot of Department of Commerce Presentation.

And women in STEM stand to benefit by going into these types of jobs. The pay for STEM jobs is significantly higher compared to non-STEM fields. Unfortunately, women in STEM still tend to make less than their male counterparts.

“There is quite a significant gap,” said Jeffrey DeBellis, director of economic and policy analysis in the Department of Commerce’s Labor & Economic Analysis Division. “Whether that is a factor in women’s desire to get into the industry, I can’t say.” 

Screenshot of Department of Commerce presentation.

You can see the whole presentation from the Department of Commerce here.

Members of the North Carolina Association of Certified Public Accountants also spoke to the committee about their efforts to get accounting classified as a STEM field, which is of particular concern as the pipeline for students expressing interest in the profession declines.

According to that association, accounting faculty are reporting a 54% decline in enrollment and graduation rates in accounting programs around the country. However, women make up more than half of all accounting graduates.

A STEM designation makes programs more attractive to students and it makes students more attractive to employers, among other benefits, Scott Showalter, director of the Master of Accounting Program at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management, told the committee.

The association came to the committee hoping to get lawmakers to help them advance the profession, including by designating accounting as a STEM field in North Carolina.

Screen shot of NCACPA presentation

You can see that presentation here.

The committee also heard presentations on the Future City Competition and Betabox.

The Future City Competition is a STEM-based competition for middle schoolers. You can see the Future City Competition presentation here.

Betabox focuses on hands-on STEM instruction through its mobile learning labs. You can see the Betabox presentation here.

EducationNC also included Betabox in a post in 2018. See that post and video below.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.