I remember growing up I had not considered a STEM career as a possibility even though I always found technology interesting. Now I realize lack of consideration was attributed due to lack of exposure and role models in the industry. I knew I wanted to make a positive impact and leave the world in a better state than I found it, however I did not know how I could achieve that. I quickly found that my experience was not unique and many other girls can relate. In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I would like to highlight the gender disparity in the tech and business industry, the importance of diversity in STEM careers, and what can be done to make STEM careers, especially tech careers, more inviting for girls and young women.
There are numerous studies showing how social conditioning affects girls and women in our professional, academic, and personal lives. According to a Microsoft report, “Closing the STEM Gap,” there’s a disparity between the perception and reality of girls and young women understanding their ‘role’ in a STEM career. This echoed my personal experience on not having the awareness of where I could fit in and not seeing regularly that looked like me in the industry or in media. A report published by the Committee on Science and Technology House of Representatives cites that “women make up almost half (49%) of the Nation’s workforce, but only 25% of the STEM workforce.” Additionally, according to Girls Who Code, by 2027, less than 25% of women will be represented in computer science fields. Unless there are some drastic changes, studies show there may actually be a decline in women in tech. This may be to due a predisposition as social media grows and is easier to compare accomplishments. Dr. Kate Bahn cites in a ChronicleVitae article that women are far more susceptible to Imposter Syndrome than men and in a study cited by the Atlantic, women underestimate their abilities and performance, whereas men overestimate in both, even when performances do not differ in quality. With so many hurdles to overcome, it is easy to see how the industry feels uninviting and women may self-select themselves out of the tech boom.
There is currently a clear gender gap that women are more than qualified to fill. There are also strong human and business reasons for why contributions by women in tech prove to be valuable and investments into STEM education should be continued and increased. WIRED worked with Montreal startup Element AI to estimate that of leading machine learning researchers, only 12% are women. This is significant since AI makes decisions based on history and having a homogenous, male dominated workforce may perpetuate past biases. This permeates throughout the tech industry as a homogenous design team would inadvertently design and create tech that is more accessible for an audience similar to the design team, but may not translate for other audiences which further alienating those not in the homogenous group. An NIH study shows that due to cultural and biological gender differences, women on average tend to be more empathic and design focused. This diversity in thought is valuable in all industries, including female-oriented subindustries that are sulking behind in innovation. In addition to increased accessibility, there is also an enterprise incentive of increased profitability for increasing women in tech. In 2017, McKinsey found that “companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profits and 27% more likely to have superior value creation.” This rings true in benefits of diversity across industries. Highlighting this research is important to bring attention that perspectives from women bring value funding is needed to develop and distribute these programs.
Given these statistics of under-representation and benefits of increased representation, there are 4 action items we can take as a community to support and encourage young girls pursue a career in STEM.
- Encourage girls interest in STEM in schools and supporting outside tech education focused organizations such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and Microsoft’s DigiGirlz will allow girls to gain exposure. The Baltimore Sun reports, “Girls and boys show equal interest in STEM subjects until middle school; then girls’ interest begins to fade” which is referred to as a leaking pipeline. These programs are outside the classroom, but also integrating these programs in the classroom in a regular curriculum will allow for more girls to be exposed.
- Create an initial curiosity in STEM in the classroom with a focus on spatial learning and continue to encourage curiosity inside and outside the classroom. This exposure early on will leave a lasting impression on girls. According to an International Business Times article, parents may be inadvertently discouraging daughters from STEM careers. Institution of Engineering and Technology, in a 2015 study, found that only 7% of mothers and fathers said they would encourage their daughters to pursue engineering careers. Some studies show that parental involvement is crucial in the development of interest and confidence.
- Teach girls and young women about women who have trail blazed this industry. The Committee on Science and Technology House of Representatives also highlights that women are oftentimes a minority in classes and are not shown role models in the field. This will allow girls to understand there is a strong history of women that have revolutionized the industry.
A great example to teach is computer scientist Dr. Grace Hopper who was a key inventor in COBOL programming language, spearheading programming language that can be read. She is known for discovering the first “bug” in 1947 which was a moth that affected the Mark II Computer operation of the relay and the lingo “de-bugging” is still used by programmers everywhere today. Another great role model is Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician and scientist, whose calculations were critical in the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory flight to the moon. She had to fight through prejudice as she started her career at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, having to sit at “Colored Computers” which were away from her white colleagues.
- Be a mentor and role model for girls and young women when you can. Connecting women in the field would allow for open communication on struggles and sharing similar experiences in the male dominated field. Although there is not enough women in tech, having women support and lift other women up will be pivotal in creating a safer and more inclusive workplace where women feel comfortable reaching their potential and raising their opinions.
There’s an overwhelming amount of statistics demonstrating the lack of women in STEM careers and the value women bring in the industry. There are contributions women and other underrepresented groups can make if given the exposure and opportunity. It will be difficult and there are challenges I and other women continue to face in the field, but I am confident as more women are in the field and as we support each other, progress can be made, and women can change the world. We can acknowledge the progress we have made as there are out of school programs and global awareness on the issue, but also acknowledge that we are not there yet. Until then, there is no such thing as too much awareness into this topic.
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