There were more women studying computer science in the 1980s than there are now. Take just a moment to let that settle in. The percent of women studying computer science peaked in the mid-1980s, and has been steadily falling ever since.
While female student enrollment in computer science programs has declined, the overall enrollment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has steadily increased.
Still, women are largely underrepresented in STEM fields: women hold just 29 percent of STEM jobs yet they make up 50 percent of the college-educated workforce. When you break this down by field, the picture becomes even more bleak in certain disciplines. Women only make up 25 percent of computer scientists and just 15 percent of engineers.
Gender diversity can be seen as a kind of moral crusade, a task endeavored because it’s “the right thing to do.” But to begin to resolve ongoing lack of representation for women in STEM, we need leaders and companies to believe the research that proves gender diversity is essential for innovation, not just that they’d be doing the right thing by correcting the imbalance.
Research shows that women are just as academically capable as boys in STEM subjects, but the perception persists that girls are inherently less intelligent when it comes to STEM. Research also shows that gender-diverse teams are more successful.
Of two groups of people of similar ability, the gender-diverse group will outperform the homogeneous group; the gender-diverse group will also out-perform a highly-skilled (but homogeneous) group.
Yet, we know that employers subconsciously tend to hire employees who are more like themselves. Especially in STEM fields, this has historically meant male hiring managers showing preference for hiring men to their organizations.
Can Women ‘Be Anything’?
There’s a sizable breakdown between the messaging that girls “can be anything” and the realities that women face when they enter the workforce. Women hold less than 10% of senior IT leadership roles, and much like their predecessors, women from Generation Z will face gender discrimination in many forms – from the hiring process, to workplace culture, through maternity leave, and the path to promotions.
“You can be anything” is missing an important caveat for women: you can be anything, but you’re going to have to fight for it.
What will even the playing field for women is organizations making deliberate and genuine efforts to increase the number of women among their ranks, not only across their organizations, but more importantly, in their STEM-based divisions and roles that require a STEM degree.
Resolving the Diversity Dilemma
I see two essential components to making meaningful progress toward STEM equity. First, we need to continue to examine the contours of under-representation. If we aren’t aware of the trends, we don’t stand a chance of changing them.
Second, we should insist that a lack of gender diversity is a problem worth eradicating. We need to appreciate the value of gender diversity and persist in seeking out and supporting research that will inform measures that can balance the scales.
As we approach Women’s History Month this March, your social media feeds will surely be flooded with examples of pioneering women. Take advantage of the opportunity to start a conversation about women in STEM.
What do you see as possible solutions to reframing gender diversity as a smart business decision, rather than a moral obligation?
About the Author
Brianna Roche is a graduate of Northeastern University, and currently works as a research associate at Education Development Center (EDC) in Waltham, MA. Her work primarily focuses on research in support of broadening participation in STEM, with a focus on girls and other underrepresented groups. You can follow her @BriannaJRoche.