The demographics of women participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers shows a major under-representation. While at least half of all university entrants are women, only 20% of women graduate with STEM qualifications.
The problem with this is that while our world remains reliant on STEM, those engaged in its development continue to be narrowly dominated by men. Why is this the case, and what can be done about it?
On June 16 ScribbleLive and Georgian Partners co-hosted a chat on the shortage of women in the essential STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career fields. ScribbleLive was joined by Cecily Carver, co-director of Dames Making Games; Tendu Yogurtcu, VP Engineering at Syncsort; Jen Lamere, a 17-year-old who won the TVnext Hackathon; Laura Plant, Director at Ladies Learning Code; and Mélanie Attia, Director of Digital Marketing at Silanis Technology, who all offered their views on the key issues that surround the gender imbalance in STEM jobs.
Among the most significant difficulties identified in convincing women to consider STEM careers is tech’s long-held image as being boring and dry. Cecily Carver felt this perception of tech is a big part of it, especially when so many people are told to choose a career by following their passion – “what we don’t always talk about is how technology connects to our passions.”
Deeper issues relating to confidence, and willingness to fail in non-traditional careers for women were also considered deterrents. Cecily Carver noted that something not often talked about is how much of programming involves failure, frustration, stuff not working and feeling lost. “If you’re already having confidence issues or facing subtle undermining from your colleagues, this becomes really difficult to deal with.”
Lack of identifiable role models was also deemed to be a problem. School teachers were deemed to be the most critical influences, but too often they were not passionate enough about technology. Laura Plant said the lack or tech-savvy teachers is definitely a huge gap and part of this challenge. “How can you inspire when you aren’t inspired yourself?” Mélanie Attia felt the answer lay in empowering teachers to inspire children to discover the world with STEM. “They need to build context and interest in how the world works, teach how to ask good questions, how to challenge, and how to think critically.”
The participants did however note there is an increasing number of women leading or holding prominent senior roles in tech companies, who do act as inspirations, particularly to those already engaged in STEM careers. Mélanie Attia thought Sheryl Sandberg did a great job discussing her experience in IT, work-life balance and how to break down barriers, while Cecily Carver looks to some of the women in video games. “There’s a really rich history of women as game developers that tends to be forgotten. Artist Mary Flanagan has done really interesting work in games, and Leigh Alexander does some of the best video game criticism I’ve ever read.”
There were mixed views on the role women can play in adding value to male dominated tech companies, through contributing more varied attitudes and thinking in STEM fields. In some instances, tech companies themselves have been proactive in recognising the benefits of diversifying their workforces. Georgian Partners had noticed a dearth of women applying for its tech roles and went far and wide to find them, even sponsoring some women to come from abroad – not for the sake of hiring women, but for a wider range of thinking going into our products. Laura Plant acknowledged this was becoming a prevailing attitude. “Tech orgs recognize the benefit of gender diversity more than ever. It’s important to having a highly effective team.”
However it was also believed tech companies need to do more than simply hire more women to help make STEM careers attractive. Mélanie Attia was concerned that gender shouldn’t be the success factor in getting hired, even though educating tech companies with male dominated management to break through the stereotypes and make the work environment welcoming is important. Cecily Carver suggested a lot of companies are hoping to find candidates who are “just like the men they hire… except happen to be women. There just aren’t a lot of those.”
Despite the real and perceived barriers, all contributors to the discussion were positive about more progressive attitudes developing in STEM sectors, and with that, the potential for women to excel in STEM. Mélanie Attia considered that IT, particularly cloud computing, and online and mobile services presents the biggest opportunity for all. She also noted many of her company’s developer interns are women, which was the most encouraging sign of the changing tides.
Finally Cecily Carver said she is increasingly encouraged by seeing programs spring up that are aimed at adult women from non-technical backgrounds, which give them skills to build stuff right away. “So many people are hungry to learn to program in an environment that’s creative and explicitly welcoming to them.”
This article originally appeared on the Georgian Partners’ blog.