The Downside of STEM Designation

We’ve all heard about the shortage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an official list of “approved” STEM fields. You might find it interesting which careers make the list, and which ones don’t. Here are a few careers that make the list which might surprise you: psychology, communications, anthropology, urban planning, and international relations. The focus to bring more women into STEM fields is meant to help young women. But does it? Why does it matter if a career is designated as a STEM field? Here are just a few reasons:

  1. It matters for students seeking scholarships. Scholarship money is designated for these specific careers by the NSF. A Google search of STEM scholarships creates more hits that I could count. The opportunities for scholarships multiplies dramatically when a student is entering a STEM field.
  2. It also matters for potential immigrants wishing to expedite the process of becoming permanent residents. This quote is from a Congressional Research Service document titled Immigration of Foreign Nationals with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Degrees. 

“STEM visa” is a shorthand for an expedited immigration avenue that enables foreign nationals with graduate degrees in STEM fields to adjust their immigration status to legal permanent residence (LPR) without waiting in the queue of numerically limited LPR visas.

3. For those in education, it certainly matters when applying for grants. I found numerous programs awarding grants to increase STEM funding for schools.

To be perfectly clear, I’m certainly not opposed to STEM programs in schools, STEM scholarships or recruiting foreign graduates of STEM fields to our country. What concerns me is the false message it sends to young women: STEM fields are the ones that are empowering and are more valuable to society than fields such as nursing. This simply isn’t a good message for our daughters. We are being led to believe by reports (based on the NSF list) that only about 25% of STEM professionals are women.

To me, this begs the question, “Why is nursing not considered a STEM field?” Obviously there isn’t engineering involved, but what about science? My bachelor’s program in nursing required, 2 Biology courses (with labs), 2 Chemistry courses (with labs), Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Microbiology, Pharmacology, numerous Psychology courses, Anthropology, Sociology, Statistics, and more. I wouldn’t have survived a shift in the pediatric ICU without putting the Math I learned in college to good use in calculating drug dosages or IV drip rates. To pull the correct dose of medication from a multidose vial requires the use of ratios and formulas that wouldn’t be possible without a good working knowledge of math. I would love to have someone explain to me how a psychologist or urban planner has a higher knowledge of math, science or technology than I do as a nurse.

But, if we include nursing as a STEM field, it throws off the numbers, doesn’t it? We couldn’t believe that women don’t have opportunities in STEM professions because the percentage of women in STEM careers would change dramatically if we included nursing into the NSF list of STEM careers.

In an article for PBS News Hour, Dr. Denise Cummins brings up some interesting points. Surely nursing has more intrinsic value to society than many other professions which garner higher pay and prestige. She points out that as more men enter the profession of nursing, things have started to change. In 2011, the percentage of male nurses increased to 10% of the profession from the 3% in 1970. This revealed a gender gap within the nursing profession with the average female nurse earning 16 percent less than the average man in the same job. The problem, it seems, is that women tend to undervalue ourselves and have traditionally been willing to settle for less.

According to Dr. Cummins, “When men move into traditionally female-dominated professions, the salaries and status levels of those professions rise because men demand—and get—more for the work they do.”

This leads me to believe that we have a bigger problem in society than can be fixed by pushing young women into the fields that society considers “important” and is therefore well-paying. We need to encourage young women to find a career they feel passionate about, have aptitude for, and will offer the flexibility needed to juggle the demands of potential future families—then empower them to negotiate higher salaries and have a better sense of their own worth in the workforce.

The bottom line, in my opinion, comes down to funding. Hospitals are largely private “for profit” institutions in our country. The bigwigs controlling the purse strings of these corporations don’t want to pay nurses the salaries commensurate with their education and expertise. Yet they have no problem paying their executives huge salaries. Leaving nursing off the list of STEM careers allows hospitals to justify the chronic under-staffing (which favors cost saving measures over patient safety) and lower salaries.

Do you think nursing should be considered a STEM field? I would very much like to hear your opinion on this. Please take a moment and comment. Thanks!

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