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How Women are Working to Close the STEM Gender Gap

About seventy years ago, “computers” were not used as a term for the amazing devices we know today, but as a term for the people who would use them. From the beginning, these people were women.

Jean Jennings Bartik, for example, worked on rocket and cannon trajectory calculations by hand. Bartik and other women also initially worked on the first version of what we recognize as a computer, the ENIAC.

From Bartik, to Grace Hopper, Adele Goldberg and more, women were a major part of groundbreaking developments in computing.

So, how did computer science become a male-dominated field?

At first, it was thought that building computers was more difficult, but it soon became clear programming was more complex, and the profession shifted toward males as the tools used to find and hire job candidates favored men.

Aptitude tests and personality profiles brought male candidates to the forefront. Industry ads began to link female workers to inefficiency and some male computer programmers even discouraged hiring females, according to a Stanford University article.

Women in STEM Mary SomervilleIn the late 1980s and early 1990s, high-profile tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs further contributed to the “nerdy computer guy” stereotype and women continued to stay away – in 1985, 37% of computer science majors were women. Today, according to Healthcare IT News, 83% of computer science majors are men.

A recent University of Washington study found that women do stay away from some STEM fields due to gender disparity and a “masculine culture.”

There is a well-documented gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, but women are working to change that. In 2017, 29,000 females took the Advanced Placement computer science exam, a sharp increase from 2007 when just 2,600 took it, according to Code.org.

Why Does STEM Gender Bias Still Exist?

While gender stereotypes are beginning to fade, the kind of systemic change that will see many women in science and math jobs takes time. Throughout history, women have been seen as the “weaker” gender and the ones who don’t do well in science and math.

Even Jane Austen, whose subtle satirical writing didn’t hide her disdain for female oppression in 19th-century England, wrote in Pride and Prejudice that women were only seen as accomplished if they possessed a “thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word, and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking … ”

An extensive list, to be sure, but there’s nothing in there about a knowledge of the sciences and mathematics. Traditionally, parents and educators have encouraged boys to go into math and science, and girls to enter careers that have more of an emotional and nurturing role.

“I can remember my third-grade teacher telling me that it was OK that I wasn’t great in math,” said Jacksonville University Master of Science in Health Informatics graduate Katie Carpenter. “Growing up, I always had a knack for literature, arts and history, but I had to work much harder at math and science. She told me that my female brain wasn’t wired for science and math, and I believed her for most of my life. My undergraduate degree was in education, and I stayed away from a career that centered around science or math because I was afraid I would fail.”

When it comes to women in the workforce, the country has closed that gap. Women make up almost half of the active workforce in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The gap has closed in education as well, as 34% of women are likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared to 26% of males. A study of SAT scores revealed women score 32 points lower than men on the math portion, but that’s only a 3% difference, and while men do outnumber women in the genius SAT math score range, it’s just a 1.6 to 1 ratio.

“Only 24% of women are working in STEM careers,” Carpenter said. “We are grossly underrepresented in these fields, but women hold specific skills to be successful in STEM careers. As a woman, I love being the problem solver. I love coming to the table with innovative and outside of the box ideas of how to fix problems in the data.”

Perhaps high level female STEM graduates suffer from a lack of female role models at school. Only 38% of female STEM professors make tenure, and the years of pushing for tenure line up with the time a young woman would be most likely to have children. In fact, women drop out of academic research 50% more often than men do, according to Psychology Today.

A number of studies suggest that women have to work harder than men to earn recognition, but do men recognize the bias exists? A 2015 Princeton University study showed that male scientists don’t see studies that reveal gender bias as quality research, and the results also indicated that men within STEM fields are reluctant to accept that gender bias exists in STEM, a field that shouldn’t rely on bias – only on facts and evidence.

This perception is problematic for those who want to change the trends in the STEM field. Without everyone accepting it and figuring out ways to combat it, change is less likely.

How Can We Work to Prevent It?

“I didn’t have any female role models growing up who were strong in science or math,” Carpenter said. “Women are breaking down barriers and gravitating toward STEM careers at a rapid pace. In my current role, all of my IT leadership is held by women leaders. As women, we need to be strong role models for the younger generation of girls around us. I want girls to understand that they can do anything they want, and just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.”

A systemic change like this one requires working with girls from an early age. Giving them toys that encourage all learning, and books that outline female heroes in all occupations are some ways to reinforce their intelligence and growth in STEM skills.

“We need to have a presence in the media and in our local communities. As women, we need to show young girls that STEM careers are exciting and fun,” Carpenter said. “We need to volunteer at local boys and girls clubs to encourage the younger female generation to embrace their scientific self. I know the task seems daunting, but if we all encourage one young female in our lives, we could create a fire of young females entering these fields.”

Institute a Metrics-Driven System

In the workplace, management should work to create a way to recognize bias and stop it before it becomes an issue. In a UC study, researchers suggest using a model of organizational change called “Metrics-Driven Bias Interrupters,” which involves four steps:

  1. Assess: Research how bias has a role in the organization’s hiring process. Is bias a factor in salary, or in assigned responsibility? Set up metrics to measure.
  2. Implement a Bias Interrupter: Change procedures if necessary – this may involve using a mentor, or making sure women have equal responsibilities as their male counterparts.
  3. Measure: Look at the metrics set up and see if they have managed to address the bias.
  4. Ratchet Up if Necessary: If the metric isn’t indicating an improvement, then take steps to make sure it does.

A metric-driven initiative will help to create an efficient response to any issues, as data-driven decisions generally get more buy-in from upper management.

In addition, the workplace should be conducive to women having a family and not being penalized in their careers for it. In a paper published by Harvard University, economics professor Claudia Goldin says that we need to make changes in the workforce in how jobs are structured, and supervisors should focus on emphasizing results, rather than the time of day or geographic location the work is done.

What Will STEM Look Like in The Future?

Recently, GE announced a goal to have 20,000 women in STEM roles at GE by 2020, and to have equal representation in their technical entry-level programs. Their study shows there is great economic opportunity in working toward a gender balance in STEM.

“Unless we bring more women into technology and manufacturing, there will be a significant negative economic impact on the sector. This is a problem for business to actively address,” said GE Chief Economist Marco Annunziata in a statement.

If businesses can implement new strategies and metrics to work on eliminating gender bias, then GDP could increase by as much as 10% by 2030, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. MIT researchers found that a shift in gender could drive a revenue increase of 41%.

Almost 40% of women who earn an engineering degree end up leaving the field or never enter it, according to a 2014 study. Eliminating bias could lead to a more profitable, diverse business world that’s inclusive of all thought processes and skills, and gives women a chance to pursue the careers they feel most comfortable in.

“I don’t really have an answer of why I chose this career,” Carpenter said. “It actually kind of chose me. My role marries my love of data with my love of teaching. Working in technology, I have to have the keen sense that the system is messing something and then have the skills to fix the issue. In my role, I seek to find the outlier and then build rules to fix the problem. As a mom, I am always problem-solving. I am able to take my innate problem-solving skills and apply them to health information technology so our patients receive the best care possible.”

Gender Gap in Stem Careers Infographic

 

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