Women in technology: Reflecting on STEM success on International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day is on March 8, and it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on the state of women in technology. Women have an untold history in STEM that is richer than many might assume — for example, the first human computers were women, as we saw in the recent film “Hidden Figures.” Today’s young women and girls also express a strong interest in STEM fields, studying them in college and then advancing into technical professions upon graduation; however, they face considerable obstacles and barriers along their journeys.
Here’s a look at the current environment for women in technology along with some solutions for supporting more girls and women in creating successful, rewarding technical careers.
Women and STEM
A whopping 74 percent of young girls indicate an affinity for STEM fields and computer science; however, women make up only 18 percent of the computer science workforce. What diverts them from this area of interest as they mature? Research finds that social expectations and gender stereotypes steer even very young girls away from pursuing STEM. While five-year-old females consider themselves as brilliant as their male counterparts, by the age of six they begin believing they are inherently incapable of tackling subjects like math and science, the LA Times reports.
Girls also lack representation and role models in STEM careers and are often left searching for examples of women who have backgrounds similar to their own and have achieved success in their technical professions. Six in ten girls say they would feel more confident pursuing a STEM career if they knew women and men were equally employed in those fields. This confidence gap has a major influence on how girls relate to and engage with STEM subjects from an early age. Girls of color may encounter additional barriers to entry that their white peers don’t experience, facing racial stereotypes about their abilities and finding themselves subject to proportionally greater classroom discipline that can then negatively impact their educational outcomes.
To address these obstacles, we should foster girls’ interest in STEM subjects, expose them to entrepreneurial activities and create an inclusive environment that counters any negative perceptions they may be developing about themselves in response to gender and racial stereotypes. As the recent #ILookLikeAnEngineer social media campaign showed, introducing girls to female STEM role models is a great way to show them that women can and do create high-profile, meaningful careers in STEM fields. There are also many terrific organizations like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code that nurture and support girls’ involvement in computer science and technical pursuits.
Women in academics
Once they arrive at college, young women face additional challenges in pursuing STEM subjects. Sadly, the percentage of women studying computer science has actually fallen from 37 percent in the 1980s to less than 18 percent today. Only four percent of women who express interest in STEM fields report having been encouraged to do so by a mentor; one in three women cite lack of mentorship as a barrier to entry into the discipline. Although women make up slightly more than half of all college-educated workers, they represent only 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers.
Women of color particularly lack STEM representation at the collegiate level. According to research from the National Science Foundation, African American women received one-tenth of the scientific doctorates that their white counterparts got in 2012. Latinas are less likely to obtain a STEM degree than any other women, garnering only 3.5 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2010. As of 2012, underrepresented minority women received only 11.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 8.2 percent of master’s degrees and 4.1 percent of doctorates in science and engineering.
To better support young women at this pivotal moment along their STEM career trajectory, colleges and universities must make sure that mentors and support networks are more readily available to them. They should also consider outreach efforts to attract female secondary school students who may be interested in STEM pursuits. Organizations like Women Who Code and the Anita Borg Institute are valuable resources that can make the difference in helping female students succeed in their STEM studies.
Women in technology
Women filled 47 percent of all US jobs as of 2015, but only 24 percent of STEM jobs are occupied by women. Only 20 percent of Fortune 500 CIO positions were held by women in 2016. According to recent research from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, Latinas and Black women hold only 1 percent and 3 percent of computing jobs. And, as Forbes reports, 100 percent of women of color report experiencing bias at the workplace, contending with a “double jeopardy” involving gender stereotypes as well as racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Attrition is a major problem facing women in technology, with 56 percent of women leaving their organizations at the mid-level points in their careers, usually due to their workplace experiences rather than family-related concerns. Companies that fail to retain female technical talent are missing out on a golden opportunity to improve business performance. Research shows that diverse teams including individuals from different genders, races, backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives that can lead to innovative solutions.
What can be done to keep women in STEM fields? Organizations need to build an inclusive culture where all employees feel welcome and supported, offering equal opportunities for career development, competitive pay and advancement to women and men of all backgrounds. Of course, given our national conversation about workplace harassment of women, it should go without saying that businesses and conference organizers should guarantee a workplace environment that is both respectful to and safe for women.
It’s an exciting time for women and girls interested in STEM careers, if a challenging one. STEM job growth is anticipated to beat the traditional job market soon, and higher wages await those seeking STEM positions. Businesses that are competing for technical professionals have an excellent opportunity to boost their business performance and improve female representation in STEM fields by hiring, developing and supporting talented women in technology. In doing so, they can ensure that the next chapter of women’s participation in STEM is brighter.