The numbers are appalling: women make up less than 25% of the STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics) workforce in the United States. Data from the US National Science Foundation shows that between 2006-2014, the number of women graduating with a degree in computer science actually declined.
Life and social sciences have higher rates of participation and the physical sciences are improving, but still the numbers are not representative of the wider population.
Why does this under-representation of women matter? Research shows that diverse teams perform better. Individuals from different genders, races, backgrounds and experiences bring different perspectives that can lead to innovative solutions. Given the changes being brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), we can’t afford not to have all hands on deck.
The number of jobs in STEM fields are increasing - and these jobs pay well, because STEM fields are key to reaping the rewards of 4IR, including improved healthcare, access to education, and higher standards of living. But STEM fields are also key to dealing with the revolution’s potential downsides, such as climate change, cyberwarfare and the reorientation of job sectors, to name but a few. So it is imperative that women reap the benefits and are involved finding solutions.
It's not an ability issue
We know some of the reasons women and girls participate in STEM fields at lower rates: lack of encouragement, active discouragement, lack of role models, negative peer pressure and harassment. Studies show that it is not an ability issue. Women from under-represented groups face prejudice twice over, both against their gender and their race. In some countries in the developing world, girls still struggle for basic access to education and then for acceptance into the workplace. Many programmes have tried to rectify the situation, with mixed results. So what is working? What is the cause for optimism?
There is an increased awareness of the role model problem that children's rights activist Marian Wright Edleman articulated so well: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ When asked to draw a scientist, most students draw a white man in a lab coat. The great majority of portrayals of scientists and engineers in movies and television shows has been men.
But as awareness of the problem has grown, championed by people like Megan Smith, the former chief technologist of the United States, and Susan Wojcicki of YouTube, portrayals of women scientists and engineers in the media have begun to change. The incredible success of movies like Hidden Figures, which tells the story of several African American women working at NASA in the 1960s whose work in engineering and mathematics helped put the first humans into space, enables girls to not only see what women have already contributed, but to see themselves in that role.
The science of helping others
Research has shown that women want to make a difference in the world. For example, the American Association of University Women conducted a study which found that women place a higher value on careers that involve helping and working with other people. California's Harvey Mudd College put this into practice by creating computer science and engineering courses that emphasised collaboration and problem-solving. It worked; the college has since graduated majority-women engineering and computer science classes. Dartmouth College has had similar success through an engineering programme with an emphasis on problem-solving, collaboration and support for students. The historical focus of entry-level science, math and engineering courses on ‘weeding out’ students chased away women; now we need to focus on how to include everyone.
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Another solution being tried out in multiple communities is to appeal directly to girls with coding programmes and to start teaching kids the fundamentals of coding early - even as early as kindergarten. An early start puts all kids on a level playing field before gender stereotypes have set in, and starts to prepare both girls and boys for the jobs of the future.
Female role models like Karlie Kloss help by showing an active interest in coding; her Kode with Klossy programme encourages young women to pursue careers in technology fields. Groups like Girls Who Code have reached over 40,000 girls, showing them that coding is fun, and can be used to solve real-world problems. And in the UK, programmes like #techmums led by Sue Black, are equipping women with the digital skills they will need navigate the workplace of the future. These are just a few examples of the growing numbers of innovative and effective solutions.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way we receive information, how we process it, how we work and what jobs we will do. It is happening at an unprecedented pace. Because of this, we simply cannot afford to have any less than our whole population engaged and contributing.
The answers are out there: give girls role models, teach them the skills they will need, encourage them, and show them that tech careers will help change the world for the better. By 2030, women can and will be critical to leveraging this revolution to benefit our global society.