by Lysa Salsbury
“Why so few?” Why, indeed? Why is it that women are gaining ground in just about every area of the professional workplace other than in STEM fields? What are the social and environmental factors that contribute to the endemic underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? I recently read a compelling 2010 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that examines these very questions. According to the report, women’s underrepresentation in STEM can be grouped under three main themes: first, the common belief that that K-12 girls “are just not interested” and therefore lack opportunities for exposure to STEM at a young age; second, that men are mathematically superior and therefore innately better suited anyway to STEM fields than women; and third, issues that disproportionately affect women in the STEM workplace, ranging from work-life balance to gender bias.
It’s commonly known that the number of women studying in technology-based fields at most institutions of higher education is extremely low. At my institution, the Department of Computer Science currently has 11 undergraduate women and 116 undergraduate men enrolled this semester. Of the 56 graduate students in the department, only 7 are women. When women enter the CS program here, they find few other women in the program and no women faculty. As a result, they might lack the opportunity for bonding that is present in other departments. In order for students to be successful, it is vitally important for them to be able to find people in their department they can relate to, and turn to for support. My university has in recent years been engaged in a number proactive efforts to counter the lack of women in technology majors. A couple of years ago, a faculty member in Computer Science approached me for advice on small grant funding opportunities to create a peer mentoring program to retain the few women students enrolled in Computer Science. At the time, he had only 5 female undergraduate students in the entire program, and was desperate to find a way to encourage them to stay. His retention strategy worked, and the number of women in his department has since more than doubled, but the fact is, gains like this are still awfully small when you’re talking about progress from single digits.
It seems obvious to me that in order to bring about lasting, systemic change, fundamental shifts need to occur in girls’ access to technology long before they get to college. We can’t possibly hope to attract more female students to technology fields at the college level if there aren’t purposeful, well-orchestrated efforts to provide greater exposure and opportunities in these fields to junior high and high school-aged girls. At the elementary level, boys’ and girls’ level exposure to technology is roughly equal. But by middle school, a fundamental shift starts to take place. Girls are suddenly a whole lot less likely to be encouraged to take technology-related courses.
My 12 year-old daughter recently completed a videography project for her Junior High Social Studies class. She and a small group of classmates worked independently with the Technology Education faculty member who teaches, among other courses, Film Production Technologies, an elective class which is not yet available to them, as seventh-graders, to take. A dedicated educator with an obvious passion for teaching, Mr. P stayed late after school every single night for several weeks to teach four girls—who were not his students—how to use the “green screen” and film editing software in his computer lab to help them complete their Social Studies assignment. When I thanked him for giving so much of his own time to help my daughter and her friends, he told me that his motives were “selfish,” that he had seen an opportunity to encourage more girls to take his classes next year, currently composed almost entirely of boys. Selfish or not, this brief mentoring experience has made a monumental difference in the way that my child views her capability to understand and use technology. Having failed her Word Processing class this quarter because of a poor score in the automated speed typing segment of the course, the ‘A’ she received for her Social Science project has sent her confidence in her technological abilities soaring.
Evidently, as demonstrated in the two anecdotes above, mentoring—both peer-based and faculty-led—seems to be key in encouraging greater numbers of women to enter and stay in technology-based fields.
A colleague at the University of Idaho lists a number of factors that he believes inhibit women from going into Computer Science, and staying to complete a degree. Computer Science, he laments, is seen as a field for geeks where there is little contact with others and no real contribution is made. This myth, he says, is further proliferated by TV and movies. “All of these things are not true!” he insists. “Computer Science is an important, creative, group activity filled with interesting people helping to make the world a better place. It isn’t a bunch of nerds programming games.” I can attest to this. I have many friends who are professionals in IT-related fields, and they are dynamic, charismatic, and talented individuals whose work has deep intrinsic value in the structure of our society.
My faculty friend’s fundamental concern is this: that as our interface to our world becomes more and more computer-mediated, those interfaces will be written almost exclusively by men, leaving out the creativity and perspective of entire gender. This, he believes, is nothing less than a crime committed against our culture. He’s right.
Studies show that women tend to want more social relevance. Apparently, many basic and intermediate Computer Science courses focus on the basics of development and don’t give enough attention to the long-range objectives in which creative and socially relevant programming will be able to be expressed. Female students are therefore at risk of dropping out because they feel that CS is not relevant to them.
Clearly, school counselors and career advisors need to become better acquainted with the opportunities that exist for women in technology fields. If college-bound women are actively encouraged to enter technology-based majors, and receive the mentoring and guidance they need to stick it out for the first couple of years, they are likely to stay and in the majority of cases, perform well.
Once in the field, we need to establish structural support systems that encourage the retention of women in technology. A good friend who works in Information Technology told me that one of the main problems she sees in her field for women is that there is a tendency toward “like hires like”—meaning that IT departments in industry and higher education often gravitate towards hiring people who remind them of themselves. This, she explains, is the reason why IT departments in hospitals, for example, tend to be more gender-balanced due to the presence of many former nurses (some of whom are men, but most of whom are women), and IT departments where the population is already majority male, tend to remain heavily dominated by men.
One tangible sign of equity in technology-based organizations, she goes on, is fostering a balanced approach to working hours, and allowing employees (that is, all employees—not just women with children) the opportunity to work from home. The nature of IT work, particularly programming, is such that it can be done just as well remotely. Not all IT occupations lend themselves to remote work, but organizations that allow employees to propose flexible schedules, and make adhering to them possible, will ultimately be more successful at retaining both male and female employees.
My friend goes on to explain that one of the positives about working in a technology field is that because the work is generally concrete and empirical (as opposed to subjective, amorphous tasks), she feels there are greater opportunities to earn respect solely for high-quality output. Her experience is that, while she feels she has to work very hard in order to be perceived as competent in a male-dominated department, once she’s earned that reputation, it has a tendency to precede her, irrespective of her gender. To her, this makes equality seem more feasible than in other professions where she states that “being the loudest or most charismatic is what is valued above all else.”
This is a complex issue with multiple layers that could cover half a dozen blog posts if I had the time and space, but to summarize in the words of my Computer Science friend, the technology workforce will ultimately be more balanced when we as a society are able to effectively remove the myths surrounding girls’ and women’s capabilities and participation in the field, consciously and purposefully build a community of support and encouragement, and provide concrete incentives to enhance women’s productivity.