Report on Boosting Diversity in STEM: Enough Talk, More Action

There has been a lot of enthusiasm from technology leaders embracing diversity in the workplace, despite the fact that many of those same companies boast disproportionately white and male-dominated workforces.

It’s not an easy issue to tackle: how can an industry solve its diversity problem? Ryerson University’s Faculty of Science and the Canadian Science Policy Centre approached that question head-on, examining how science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—disciplines can encourage gender and racial diversity and equality.

The result was a report titled Forging Paths to Enhanced Innovation that summarized key findings from a cross-sector roundtable in May this year. Dr. Imogen Coe, the dean of Ryerson’s Faculty of Science and cell biologist, discussed the findings at the university today, speaking about the next steps she would like to see in a historically unvaried sector.

There are many feel-good initiatives that companies roll out to encourage diversity, but the effects do not last. Instead, Coe said organizations need to pursue evidence-based and data-driven programming to enhance diversity—and that accountability and consequences are necessary for real change.

“Ideas are cheap and easy, implementation is expensive,” said Coe. “There are institutions and companies pursuing actions quietly and we need to recognize and reward it. Other companies simply do a lot of talk because it checks a box.”

Another finding suggested that companies need to intentionally build diversity into hiring practices as well as the talent pipeline if they want to create a team that’s truly diverse. Coe said that even the language used in a job posting or the company’s reputation can influence who may apply for positions.

“It is a gross oversimplification to say women aren’t being hired because not enough are applying,” said Coe. “Data would suggest there are fewer women applying for technology jobs, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t women that are capable.”

Coding camps and workshops geared towards women and girls have gained popularity in recent years, but Coe explained despite having the best intentions, they won’t change participation rates of women in STEM unless they’re visibly represented in the industry.

“If the technology world looks like it is sexist, it’s not very appealing. It’s hard to keep those young people in those pathways. If they don’t see themselves reflected ahead, they have nothing to aspire to,” said Coe.

Carolyn Van, the director of youth programming at Ladies Learning Code, echoed Coe’s statement.

“When young people have a high standard of working with highly diverse groups, the last thing we want is for them to enter the workforce and it be a different story. They need to see people they can relate to and that look like them,” she said.

Van noted that getting young kids involved in coding isn’t going to change the representation of women in the tech industry, but that they can help “chip away” at the larger problem.

“It’s just one starting point,” she said. “Everyone can contribute to this in some way.”

One of the ways Ladies Learning Code is contributing to championing diversity in STEM is by piquing the interest of even younger generations. The organization will begin to offer their coding classes to three to five-year-olds, allowing pre-school kids the chance to get comfortable with computational thinking.