August 27, 2015
While equality in the workplace is slowly improving for women in general, the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers — particularly tech and engineering — is actually declining. In 2013, only 23 percent of U.S. computing jobs were held by women, down significantly from 35 percent in 1990, according to a 2015 report from the American Association of University Women.
The problem is twofold — less women are entering the field and many women are leaving it in the middle of their careers. But why? I spoke with a leader in the industry to understand her thoughts on why women are turned off by STEM.
Employers are aware there’s a lack of women in STEM careers, but efforts to simply recruit more women aren’t working. Part of the problem starts long before women enter the workforce.
“We don’t properly represent STEM careers to girls and young women,” said Jennifer Chayes, Distinguished Scientist and Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England and New York City. “In the media, STEM careers are often portrayed as non-collaborative and purely technical, when in fact STEM careers can be deeply collaborative and creative.”
When we think about the computing and engineering professional, the picture of the geeky guy hunched over his computer alone comes to mind. The media has represented this solitary geek image over and over again, and the stereotype has affected the way girls and young women view professions in these fields.
Harvey Mudd College, a small liberal arts school focused on science, education, and math, recognized the power these misrepresentations have over women’s interest in the field. The school increased the percentage of women enrolled in its computer science program from 12 percent to approximately 45 percent over the past few years. How did they do it?
The school changed the introductory computer science course to better explain and show the breadth of the field. They also provided research opportunities to women in their first year to give them a real feel for the industry.
“The one thing that would make the most difference for the pipeline is if we could accurately represent STEM fields to young women – showing them that STEM careers can be tremendously collaborative and creative, and that STEM careers would give them an opportunity to address important societal issues,” Cheyes said.
When trying to explain the lack of women in STEM professions, many have placed the blame on the so-called “brogrammer culture.” With a majority of men in the workplace, office environments may become places where women are left out — a boy’s club for computer nerds with “no girls allowed” signs taped to their cubicles. In these workplaces, professionals bond more like frat-house bros rather than co-workers and women are left feeling uncomfortable and out of place.
But most workplaces in the industry aren’t so outwardly biased in favor of men.
“There is definitely some ‘bro culture’ in tech, especially in those environments where the overwhelming majority of the employees are male,” Cheyes said. “But I think that the more insidious problem is not active bro culture, but rather subtle forms of implicit bias in otherwise reasonable work environments.”
Cheyes said that she is usually oblivious to subtle biases, but when she does see it, she works to overcome it. However, she realizes that her experience isn’t necessarily standard in the industry.
“So, as my career has progressed, I have devoted more time to helping to create environments without bias, and to help women succeed in spite of whatever implicit bias might exist,” Cheyes said.
To solve the problem, employers should work toward stamping out subtle biases and creating more collaborative environments.
“We need to mentor women who have started in the field, helping them to cope with whatever implicit bias exists,” Cheyes said. “And we need to create diverse and supportive working environments in which everyone can contribute.”
The Focus on Bias
To help solve gender imbalances in STEM, the attention has been placed on both implicit and explicit biases in the field to illuminate and eliminate the challenges women face. But the heavy emphasis on industry biases could be having the opposite effect. Why don’t women want to work in tech? Hearing that employers discriminate against women can’t be helping.
“All the publicity about bias is turning women away from STEM careers, even though many environments are quite supportive,” Cheyes said.
Instead of focusing on negative work environments, showcasing the many positive ones could help draw more women to the field.
Getting more women to enter STEM careers isn’t a simple task — there are several factors that influence perceptions of the industry and career choices. But understanding barriers and presenting a realistic view of the many professions in the field can start to bring about change.
Image Credit: unbits
What do you think? What’s still keeping women from going after STEM careers?
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