Women in Tech: How Universities Make the Change
An acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, STEM represents a curriculum based on the concept that educating students in these four disciplines should be an cohesive and applied approach — both because the overlapping skills are essential for student success and because their real-world applications are similarly intertwined.
Earlier this fall, leaders from more than 50 countries, multinational corporations, philanthropic organizations and UN agencies convened to launch the Global STEM Alliance. This collaborative organization aims to increase STEM access at schools around the globe due to a shortfall of students with proven proficiency in mathematics and an interest in STEM careers. An initiative of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Alliance plans to invest millions of dollars in capital in the hopes of influencing more than a million children to become STEM leaders by the year 2020.
Challenges in Higher Education
While women may lag behind their male counterparts in science, engineering and mathematics, the situation is particularly dire in computer science. In fact, computer science is the only field which has seen a decrease in the number of women receiving bachelor degrees over the past decade. Not only that, but the percentage of women in the field has also decreased significantly — a mere 18 percent today compared to 37 percent nearly 30 years ago.
Schools like Harvard are actively engaged in an attempt to reverse this trend. Last February, the institution’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) hosted a weekend conference to which drew luminaries from some of the world’s most successful companies, as well as students from more than 40 colleges and universities across the country. With such efforts underway, it’s no surprise that Harvard has a 28 percent concentration of women computer science majors — well above the national average — with the goal to eventually bring that concentration to 50 percent. With the school poised to expand its computer science faculty by 50 percent over the next 10 years, hopes for continued growth run strong — not just at Harvard, but within hundreds of other Computer Science, Computer Engineering and Computer Technology programs at the world’s higher education institutions.
…And in the Workforce
Many people fail to realize that many of the world’s early programmers during the 20th century were women, who were also pioneers at balancing the demands of their personal and professional lives. But women’s place in information technology has been declining since its peak in the mid-80s. So what happened between now and then?
While there’s no clear cause for this trend, some speculate the decline is due to the rising perception of the field as a “boy’s sport.” Girls are less likely to be exposed to computers, or encouraged to pursue a career path in computer science. Even teenager girls who use computers as well as their male counterparts are a whopping five times less likely to pursue a career in tech. And of course, these influences play out in the workplace. At top companies, including Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook, a mere 30 percent of the workforce is female. Factor out non-tech jobs and the numbers are even more disparate: for example, Twitter’s technical workforce is a whopping 90 percent male.
And while some of the world’s top tech companies, including Facebook, Yahoo, and IBM, are helmed by women, many of these workplaces are nevertheless viewed as unfriendly to women thanks to a glorified “brogrammers” culture in which women are more likely to be staffing booths at trade events than sitting on a panel at an industry conference.
Perhaps even more troubling than the lack of women in the workforce is the gender pay gap. Research shows that not only do women begin their tech careers with lower salaries than their male peers, but they’re less likely to be promoted to top positions. Factor in time off during the childbearing years, and pay trajectories are even further disrupted. This pattern was highlighted in a recent Bloomberg “Global Tech” article citing the discrepancy — to the tune of $1 million — between the salary of Advanced Micro Device’s new female CEO and the company’s departing male CEO.
Being the Change
The Global STEM Alliance has announced “1000 Girls – 1000 Futures,” a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action which will over the next three years invest $2 million into a coordinated program to engage women in STEM and ultimately inspire them to enter STEM fields. The ultimate goal? To increase STEM access to underrepresented populations, including women and rural residents.
And a ecent gathering of women at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, meanwhile, yielded some valuable insights about how to increase women’s presence in the field. Among the solutions? While mentorship and education at the middle school level can catch girls early on while creating tangible role models, change can also occur with a commitment at the hiring level. Additionally, a rise in angel investors with a predilection for pitches from female founders can help stop the cycle, as can the increased use of information and communications technologies for connecting and empowering women.