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Women in STEM: Closing the Gap for Women and Girls

The statistics are staggering.  Women make up only 27% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gaps are particularly high in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paid jobs of the future, like computer science and engineering. STEM occupations account for nearly 7% of all U.S. occupations and STEM workers play an important role in America’s innovative capacity and global competitiveness and women in STEM should play a vital part. They are our engineers, medical scientists, computer engineers, sociologists and informational security analysts.

Although women’s representation in STEM has increased dramatically since 1970, those strides have leveled off in recent years. In fact, the number of women working in computer fields — the largest-growing STEM field — dropped 7 percentage points from 1990 to 2016.

As a woman in technology, I can attest that closing the gap is critical to driving innovation and growth.  Let’s investigate the challenges, and opportunities, to close the STEM gap for women and girls.

A Brief History of Women in STEM

It may come as a surprise to many but the advocacy for women in STEM is based on the historical contributions that women have made in the field, before the era of computers.  Did you know that women performed many of the calculations to measure the size of the universe or determine rocket trajectories?

Before the invention of computers, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), an English mathematician, was hailed as the first computer programmer and was a pioneer in her field.  Women were also key in the programming of the ENIAC computer in the 1940s, manually connecting 18,000 vacuum tubes to calculate ballistics trajectories.  Grace “Queen of Code” Hopper (1906-1992) was a military leader, mathematician, and computer programmer who helped build Mark I, one of the world’s earliest computers.  And who can forget the extraordinary women who made incalculable contributions to the space program: mathematician Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), mathematician and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008), and aeronautical engineer Mary Jackson (1921-2005), also known collectively as the “Hidden Figures.”

The colloquial myth surrounding women in STEM as a social movement can often be traced to the exclusionary tactics and erasure from history that many STEM leaders have endured.  Up until just a century ago or so, women were largely excluded from STEM leadership roles and denied credit for their contributions. For example, when Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921), who had been hired by the Harvard College Observatory in the early 20th century as a human “computer,” discovered over 2,000 variable stars, her male boss published her research without acknowledging the work she had done.

In the past few decades, women have made major strides in STEM. In 1970, women made up only 7% of the STEM workforce; this percentage grew to 23% by 1990. Since then, however, these gains have leveled off.

Women in STEM Barriers

There are many significant barriers that discourage women from having successful STEM careers, which begin in childhood and continue throughout adulthood.  A mounting group of evidence points to gender bias as a main force driving women out of STEM careers. 

“A 2012 randomized, double-blind study gave science faculty at research-intensive universities the application materials of a fictitious student randomly assigned a male or female name and found that both male and female faculty rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hire-able than the woman with identical application materials. A 2014 study found both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a job that required math.”

Joan C. Williams, Harvard Business Review
  • Gender Stereotypes: There is a false but prevalent belief in society that boys are “naturally” better at math and science than girls are. Although this has been thoroughly debunked, the bias continues and is reflected in how the field of STEM is viewed. Teachers and parents feed into this perception, often underestimating girls’ math abilities start as early as preschool.
  • Male-Dominated Cultures: Because fewer women study and work in STEM, these fields tend to perpetuate inflexible, exclusionary, male-dominated cultures that are not supportive of or attractive to women and minorities.  
  • Fewer Visible Role Models: Even though history is filled with the contributions of women in STEM, girls don’t get to see female scientists, computer programmers, and engineers in books, media, and pop culture. There are even fewer role models of Black women in math and science.
  • Reduced Confidence: Negative stereotypes and beliefs help to erode girls’ confidence in STEM very early in their education, which often leads to lackluster test scores, which further perpetuate the negativity surrounding girls and STEM. 
  • Do It Again (and again and again): Women often report that they have to prove themselves over and over again – with their successes discounted, their expertise questioned.
  • The Maternal Tightrope: Professional women with children often find themselves having their commitment and competence questioned, and opportunities start drying up.
  • Isolation: Many women may perform excellently, but they are not invited to share their ideas.

26% of computing-related jobs are held by women. Just 3% of computing-related jobs are held by African-American women, 6% held by Asian women and 2% held by Hispanic women.

Why We Need More Women in STEM

Breaking through the barriers of women in STEM is not just based on the humanist perspective for equality. It’s also sound business strategy.  

STEM positions are notoriously difficult to fill and the growth of the job market is outpacing the supply of skilled technologists. This kind of employment vacuum in critical technology areas can kill innovation and growth.  With a future filled with automation and AI, it’s critical for the technology industry to begin filling the job pool with qualified, excited professionals. 

Beyond the social and moral reasons for advocating for more women in STEM, there’s money being left on the table by not prioritizing it as an industry and business objective.  Growth is always a paramount objective for any company and advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025.         

Organizations looking for innovation, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking need only look to women to fill that gap. Seeing things from one point of view means you don’t get the whole picture. Hiring women means tapping into fresh ideas and coming up with new solutions that are driven by individualized experiences. Products can be better solutioned around everyone’s needs. Technology can be more adaptable and strategic to solve specific pain points. Organizations can benefit from increased diversity of thought.

Closing the STEM Gap

As Director of Automation Engineering here at Tangoe, I am always conscious of how I and technology organizations can do more to increase engagement for girls and women in STEM.

  • Accept that gender diversity is a priority: Change starts at the top and if leadership is clear and transparent about this being a critical issue, the rest of the organization is likely to follow.
  • Champion pro-women policies: From recruitment to talent management, appraisal to compensation, management needs to revisit all policies and systems for their organization to check for overt and covert bias. Employees need training on conscious and unconscious bias, and every decision needs to be informed by a structured due diligence process.
  • Establish goals for improving gender diversity: Ask for employee feedback and recommendations; take a deeper dive into organizational structures to identify bottlenecks and hold managers accountable for diversity on their teams.  
  • Develop a welcoming culture for women:  Be sensitive to informal systems and behaviors and make everyone feel welcome – implement a zero interruptions policy to ensure every voice is heard.
  • Establish mentorship and sponsorship programs: A good mentor can help guide and encourage employees through even through the most challenging points in their career paths.  
  • Set a path for women to succeed: HR professionals and managers should identify rising female talent throughout the organization and track their career paths and accomplishments.     
  • Accept individuality: It may be obvious that not all women are the same, but there is still gender bias regarding how women should and should not act. All employees should be valued for their different qualities and women should be embraced for their own stories and lived experiences.

Excited about STEM

There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to women in STEM and pursuing a career in technology.  Here’s the top advice I give to women pursuing a career in technology. Get excited because there are no limits to what you can achieve! There will be successes and there will be setbacks. Each of those events help you to learn and grow. Build a network of diverse people around you. You will meet a ton of people throughout your career. Stay in contact, make new contacts and keep growing your network. You are going to run into challenges where you may need advice, guidance, or just people to bounce your ideas off of. 

Have fun! Be passionate and engaged about what you are working on. That energy will fuel you and the team you work with.    

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