6 Opportunities to Increase Diversity in STEM-Related Fields

6 Opportunities to Increase Diversity in STEM-Related Fields

By Kieren Jameson, MLIS | August 10, 2015
Digital Solutions Manager, ETR

For most of my career, I've been a tech worker in nonprofits. I’ve worked mostly within majority-women workplaces. That means that I've seen more women in leadership and technology-related roles than is the norm in corporate America.


I think this is why, until the past few years, I’d completely missed the appalling lack of ethnic and gender diversity in STEM-related workplaces.


Once I opened my eyes and looked beyond my sheltered nonprofit world, the numbers were pretty clear. This is what they tell me: we have a serious diversity problem in tech. 

Check the Numbers

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) produced a compelling infographic in 2015 (2015 by the Numbers) that shows:

  • Women comprise 57% of U.S. professional occupations.
  • Women hold only 26% of U.S. technology jobs.
  • Women make up only 19% of U.S. software developers.
  • Only 6% of technology leadership jobs are held by women.

The stats for Latina and African-American women are even more dismal, averaging 3% and 1% of U.S. technology jobs respectively.

This issue has been getting a lot of press since high tech companies such as Intel, Apple, Google, Yahoo and Salesforce were pressured (or, in some cases, volunteered) to release their diversity stats. I've had more conversations about women in technology over the last 12 months than I have in the previous 20 years combined.

Who’s Got an Opinion?

People have all kinds of opinions about this. Here are some common ones that, frankly, really get to me.

Is there really a problem?

Amazingly, there are still people who don't think this is a real issue. In fact, some of the top women in the high-tech industry have expressed this belief. (Internalized sexism?)

Exactly what is the problem?

Many people, especially those who are in the majority categories of the IT workforce (White and Asian men), throw up their hands and say, "This a pipeline issue! Diverse workers aren’t coming through the system." In my opinion this is code for, “I do not have to be part of the solution.”

What am I supposed to do about it?

When I ask people what we should do about the diversity issue, here’s what usually happens.

  • Men in tech point to senior management. “Management should fix it.”
  • Senior management points to the low numbers of women, Latino/as and African Americans pursuing Computer Science degrees. “Colleges should fix it.”
  • Women who have "made it" describe high-tech as a meritocracy. They’ve “arrived” because they’re just better than everyone else. Pam Murphy, COO of Infor and a 10-year veteran at Oracle, commented, "There's nothing which is prohibiting women coming into this industry. There's no roadblocks."

Why Should We Care?

Here’s another opinion I hear. “Why should we care? Why is this important to me/us/our company/our field?”

Let’s start with simple decency and fairness. I think those are very good rationales. But they don’t even begin to cover the reasons we should commit funding, research and action to solving this.

There is a compelling business case for team diversity, so this does matter to you, your company and your field.

Diversity with Benefits

We have a deeply entrenched "lone genius" narrative within the U.S. This attributes major scientific advances to outstanding individuals (Gates, Einstein, Edison, etc.). These noble individuals had the guts, grit and genius to change their worlds.

In reallife, however, the vast majority of innovations are developed by teams of dedicated people solving problems together. In this team environment, diversity becomes a key to success. Diverse teams generally outperform brilliant individuals.

A 2014 Research Summary published by NCWIT found that:

  • Companies where there is a gender balance in senior management perform better financially (up to 66% better).
  • Gender-balanced teams produce more work, stay on schedule and come in under budget.

Intel certainly believes in the ROI (return on investment) from increasing diversity. This year they announced the launch of a $125 million fund to back technology startups run by women and minorities. This is on top of their $300 million Diversity in Technology Initiative that aims to reach full representation of unrepresented groups in their U.S. workforce by 2020.

Let’s Reframe So-Called Problems as Opportunities

Lack of diversity in tech is a multi-faceted problem. That’s actually good news. It provides us many opportunities for improvement.

This is one of the coolest things about this issue. If we look at six commonly-held beliefs about what’s created the current homogeneity of the tech workforce, we can reframe each of them to identify ways to move that belief into an opportunity for change.

1. It's a "Pipeline" Problem

While women make up 57% of recent U.S. college graduates, they make up only 18% of completed computer science degrees. This trend has taken a consistent dive from its high point of 35% in 1984.

Why this decline? The jury’s still out, but developer Adria Richards’ ideas certainly speak to me. Girls get three messages before they have a chance to get interested in computer science, she explains. "One, you wouldn't be interested in this; two, you wouldn't be good at this; and, three, you don't belong here."

The more women are absent from tech fields, the less we all see them as being "the right kind of person" for technology jobs. Or, as Amy Yin, co-founder of Harvard Women in Computer Science, aptly put it, "If you can't see it, then you can't be it."

Our Pipeline Opportunity

As diverse IT role models grow increasingly scarce, it’s more important than ever to encourage and support girls and youth of color to aspire to STEM careers. This is one reason why ETR focuses on Diversity in IT. We work to find effective solutions that will increase the number of women and under-represented youth choosing STEM-related careers.

I co-presented at a recent technology user's group with a woman developer who started programming when she was in high school. She said she wouldn’t have even known this was possible if it wasn't for a computer science class at her school. She had no idea what "C++" was when she signed up. She figured from the name that it would be easy.

I'm not sure what that says, but I'm sure glad she enrolled! She's one super-smart programmer and an inspiration to women in technology.

We’re increasingly seeing more girls exposed to computer classes at an early age. It will be interesting to watch how this affects the future portrait of the technology worker.

2. It's a "Recruitment" Problem

Related to pipeline is the challenge of attracting qualified women and under-represented males to technology companies. Companies might say, “We just don’t get the right kinds of applicants from that particular pool of workers.” Or, “What are we supposed to do? All of our applicants are white and Asian men.”

Our Recruitment Opportunity

It’s time to make technology companies more attractive to women in the job market. For example, companies can remove the bias in job descriptions by taking language that is strongly masculine-themed (e.g., “ambitious, active, analytical, determined, decisive”) and replacing it with words that are less strongly gendered (e.g., "collaborative, committed, dependable, responsible, supportive”). They can give hiring managers "blind" résumés that have been stripped of gender identifiers. They can track their diversity stats. They can ask different sorts of questions during interviews.

Companies can also remove requirements for skills or experience that aren't 100% necessary for the job. For both men and women, the most common reason they don't apply for a job is that they "didn't meet the qualifications." The difference is that men believe they are qualified for the job if they have 60% of the qualifications, whereas women tend to think they need 100% to be qualified.

This leads to a misperception that women aren't as confident as men. But there are all kinds of other ways we might interpret this. Women are more precise, or more thorough in self-assessment.

Why do we even ask for skills or experience in a job announcement that people can learn on the job? Are we getting the most qualified person by doing that, or are we just cutting down our pool of applicants?

There are some great resources out there that help job seekers find women-friendly tech startups, including GlassDoor and startup Doxa. Doxa's goal is to help women find equitable places to work. They enable job hunters to search for—among other traits—companies with pay equity, maternity leave, higher percent of women in tech, and more women being heard within the company.

3. It's a "Personality" Problem

We’re now seeing a widely held belief that women just need to "lean in" and be more assertive in the workplace. However, there is evidence that these strategies can backfire. Women tend to be penalized for being assertive, including suffering an increased prevalence of sexual harassment as a result of speaking up. Women in leadership roles who act in an assertive or authoritative manner (a style more typically associated with male leaders) are seen far more negatively than similarly behaving males.

Our Personality Opportunity

I am ambivalent about this particular take on the diversity issue. I completely believe that women must step up to be heard and claim a seat at the table. On the other hand, I understand that this just doesn't work with everyone. It depends on a company’s culture. There may be a high price to pay for stepping out of expected gender roles. And, at the risk of setting out another stereotype, I know that some of the people who have the strongest skills in tech work do not have the personality style to step up, speak up or lean in.

I think that the main opportunity here is to step up, but to do it with allies at our side. This includes male allies who call each other on bias and help forward women’s ideas when they are derided or ignored. Leadership needs to take proactive steps to engage in discussions around privilege and unconscious bias (we'll talk about that later).

4. It's a "Mentorship" Problem

“It's not what you know, it's who you know," is substantially true. People generally don't lean or push their way to into upper management. Most get there with a little help from above.

The problem with this is that people generally mentor or help people with whom they identify and who look like them. Talented women or people of color are less likely to find that helping hand, especially early in their careers.

Our Mentorship Opportunity

Most of us who’ve made it up the leadership ladder got there because others helped us. We now have an obligation to provide mentorship and opportunity to those on the lower rungs. Given that so few women are in leadership roles, our male allies must step up and mentor women in technical roles.

For many years, my main technical mentor has been my male supervisor. He empowered me to learn and take risks. He has supported my growth in our agency. Although I doubt that he would say it this way, I consider him a true male ally. What I owe him, I try to "pay forward" to other women in my technical community. I answer questions on technical forums, support women speaking at technical conferences and run groups for women learning to code.

When Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, recognized that there was a significant gender imbalance within his senior leadership group, he started an initiative called "Women Surge." This states that every important meeting must include at least 30% to 50% women. He asked high-level managers to invite their highest potential female executives. This not only ensures that women have a voice in decision making, but also allows women to have more personal contact with executives. This can lead to executive sponsorship and a growing number of women in senior leadership roles.

5. It's an "Unconscious Bias" Problem

An extensive body of research speaks to unconscious bias as a major barrier for under-represented populations in STEM. This bias arises from "schemas" or "pattern recognition" that we use to categorize things in our everyday life. These templates can be for simple things, like cars, but they’re also used for more complex concepts, such as what makes “a good leader" or who is "the right person" for a technical position.

NCWIT has a fabulous multimedia demonstration of unconscious bias. Take a look. It demonstrates that we all have it. For example, studies show that simply changing the name on a resume from male to female significantly reduces the chance the candidate will be considered for a job. It will also result in a lower recommended salary.

Earlier this year I attended the Lesbians Who Tech Summit. Catherine Ashcroft from NCWIT spoke on Addressing Stealth Barriers to Diverse Participation and Enhanced Innovation. She joked that when they replicated this resume study with their own staff, even the folks at NCWIT—who you’d think would be immune to its effects—showed unconscious bias!

A study by Emilio J. Castilla and Stephen Bernard found that when an industry believes it's a meritocracy—that talented people will always rise to the top—women are "more likely to get smaller bonuses than men with the equivalent performance reviews."

Our Opportunities to Reduce Unconscious Bias

The NCWIT website has some excellent resources on reducing unconscious bias. Studies have identified "bias interrupters" that can change how businesses work in ways that “stop patterns of bias in their tracks.” Along with creating more neutral job announcements, applications, performance evaluations, performance reviews, promotions and salaries, these strategies can make a system-wide impact on unconscious bias.

6. It's a "Retention" Problem

Demand for skilled IT workers is growing, yet women's participation is decreasing. The percentage of women in the U.S. IT workforce has dropped from 37% in 1996 to 25% in 2010. It appears that retention is one of the biggest factors in this decline. More than half of women who enter the IT workforce leave it while holding a midlevel position. Half of these leave the IT workforce altogether and head to other industries.

Most female programmers I know are the only women on their teams. Sometimes they are the only female tech worker in their entire company. Is it any wonder that women in this type of environment are choosing to leave technology careers for something more inclusive?

Our Retention Opportunity

One of the best ways to increase retention is to have more diverse teams in the first place. The Cumulative Gallup Workplace Studies found that companies with more diverse teams have a 22% lower turnover rate. Given the high cost of replacing technical employees and the concrete benefits of having diverse teams, diversity should be a priority for all high tech workplaces.

Companies can do a great deal to be more supportive of a diverse workforce. This includes offering flex time and paid maternity leave, reducing the "brogrammer" culture of beer-pong and all-night deployments, eliminating the pay gap between men and women, and ensuring that women have a strong voice in all levels of the organization.

Keeping Up the Momentum for Change

Research data and effective tools are increasingly available to help address most aspects of this issue. There are now programs that:

It’s time now for everyone to join in and keep the momentum rolling along. If you’re a woman tech worker, speak up, lean in and find yourself a mentor. A male? Be a visible, outspoken ally. A leader of any gender? Create policy and opportunities that support a diverse pool of workers.

And every one of us, technology worker or not, should be stepping up to support youth STEM projects that expressly reach out to girls and under-represented groups. These young people are ready to save the day if we just give them the chance.


Kieren Jameson, MLIS, is the Digital Solutions Manager at ETR and Salesforce MVP. She can be reached at kierenj@etr.org. You can find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @KierenJameson. Check out her blog, WomenCodeHeroes.com.



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