Closing the STEM Gap: Promoting Gender Equity at All Levels
According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, although women make up half of the total college-educated workforce in the U.S., they only comprise 29 percent of the workforce in science and engineering-related fields. Part of the reason for this seems tied to students’ choices of majors, at the undergraduate level: the most recent statistics from the National Science Foundation indicate that women receive only 17.9 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and only 19.3 percent of engineering degrees.
Why the persistent gender gap, you may ask? Part of the reason seems to be tied to cultural norms while in school; then, after graduation, workplace culture. Knowing this,how, specifically, do we address the issue? Many of the articles and analyses of the problem ended with a vague call-to-action to “Do better” or “Be more inclusive,” while ignoring specific ways STEM-based workplaces might make themselves more welcoming and inclusive toward women. There is a resource I came across in my research that I found particularly illuminating: it’s called “Advancing Women in Tech-Intensive Industries: Transforming Organizational Cultures,” published by an organization called White Men as Full Diversity Partners.
The resource offers specific suggestions such as altering the language in job descriptions and recruiting documents, and revising talent management systems to include more extensive training and development opportunities for women. WMFDP also suggests making sure women are well-represented as supervisors and trainers throughout the advancement process, encouraging women to stay by cultivating a culture of respect and inclusiveness, and offering re-entry and re-training programs for employees who leave on temporary hiatus to care for their families.
The first step, then, seems to be to implement a diversity-minded plan from the top down, as well as throughout the organization. Such change also requires adjustments in HR policy with regard to diversity training for management. Lastly, it seems crucial that there be policies in place to ensure a minimum percentage of female representation at all levels, so as to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for women throughout the organization—because, let’s face it, change isn’t going to magically happen via good intentions and some vague notion of “awareness.”
Take, for example, the impending reductions in workplace safety regulations. This is a technical field with broad overlap with HR-related oversight and operations-related management. The creation of an additional internal health and safety professional who is able to make up for the lack of OSHA funding, in this case, is warranted—assuming your workplace involves a warehouse, factory, or manufacturing component. Companies can entrust their Hazard Communication program to the internal health and safety professional, who should oversee employee training related to workplace hazards and how to prevent them. For example, the internal safety specialist position could be combined with that of a sustainability director; this person may then be tasked with educating management in a manufacturing field on the environmental and health-related benefits of oil-free air compressors—as opposed to regenerative air dryers.
Another possible position for women in STEM fields is a corporate representative who reaches out to girls at a relatively young age—around middle school or junior high school grades—and serves as an ambassador to schools. In addition to giving educational presentations to classrooms, they might serve as coordinators of job shadowing programs that bring young women into the workplace and offers a glimpse of what it’s like to work as a software engineer, for example. Despite persistent gender inequality in STEM-related fields, Stacey Mabray, faculty member at the college of education at Concordia University, notes, “There are initiatives that push for inclusion such as Girls Code Camps and Sisters Science Clubs.”
One particular coding organization designed for young women, Girls Who Code, has enjoyed widespread success by reaching out to girls at a time in their lives when interest in computer programs begins to drop off: between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. They’ve started after school clubs and summer immersion programs to make educational outreach more accessible and convenient for school-age girls, as well. Most importantly, they’ve reached out to tech companies like AT&T and Adobe to establish internship programs and other career-related opportunities for alumni of the program.
Managers responsible for Research & Development instruction and supervision can take a cue from Harvey Mudd, a STEM-focused college that completely revised the computer science curriculum in 2005, leading to its current rate of computer science majors among female graduates: 55 percent. They did so by placing women in leadership positions, overhauling the computer science curriculum, and having faculty encourage students to utilize office hours, rather than ask questions in class—one way that more talkative students dominate discussion time, inadvertently at others’ expense. Because more women leave the introductory programming course with a positive impression, a larger number of women ultimately decide to major in computer science.
There are a few good reasons why the current labor force is in need of more women pursuing careers in STEM-related disciplines. While men tend to solve problems in a linear fashion, women are more likely to think holistically—which can help with project management, strict deadlines, and meeting the expectations of clients; this difference in problem solving increases the diversity and innovation of the tech world. Women also stand to benefit because they are exposed to fun, rewarding, and creative opportunities not present in other fields—as well as higher salaries, which would help alleviate the persistent gender-wage gap. Lastly, women can introduce technology into fields like healthcare and education, two fields that have historically been popular with women, in order to become more successful.
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We need more Margaret Hamiltons to help inspire little girls to be interested in space exploration, as well as women like Kathleen Hogan, an HR executive at Microsoft who is working to close the gender gap in pay at her company. By working together throughout all levels of a company, we can continue to find ways to ensure that women are well-represented in STEM-related fields—which will, in turn, promote a more diverse and innovative future that reflects all of us.
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