Women’s Disparity, Dearth in STEM

When I was 10 years old, my father put a microscope/chemistry set under our Christmas tree — not for either of my studious siblings, 538088903-women-in-sciencebut for me, the nutty little gymnastic tumbler who rarely stopped long enough to observe much of anything, let alone how the world worked.

Years later, when I asked him about it, he told me he put that there because he sensed in me the inquisitiveness and intuition of a future scientist, like he had become and his father before him.

I never lived up to his hunch, though I did love math, and I certainly chose an inquisitive career. But I’ve often wondered what stopped me. Was there something in me or my environment that never allowed that chemistry set to become more of a beacon than a toy?

A new study from the University of Washington, Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others? suggests there well may have been, a force that persists to this day, and one that could account for the varied representation — as well as the under-representation — of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

According to the study’s report, the most powerful factor driving this disparity and dearth is a “masculine culture” that makes many women feel like they don’t belong.

Granted, the masculine force in my case was completely encouraging, but was it the rest of my world around me — the lack of female role models in scientific jobs, the other stuff I was given to play with, the general expectations of what drives women onward and our perceptions of the fields that seem so out of reach?

Lead researcher and author Sapna Cheryan, a UW associate professor of psychology, says maybe so — maybe all that and more:

“Students are basing their educational decisions in large part on their perceptions of a field. And not having early experience with what a field is really like makes it more likely that they will rely on their stereotypes about that field and who is good at it.”

She and her fellow researchers analyzed more than 1,200 papers about women’s under-representation in STEM fields and, from those, identified 10 factors that impact gender differences in students’ interest and participation in STEM. Then they winnowed the list down to the three factors most likely to explain gendered patterns in the STEM fields — a lack of pre-college experience, gender gaps in belief about one’s abilities and that most powerful one, that masculine culture that discourages women from participating.

Cheryan isn’t the only one taking the declining, diverging number of women in STEM careers seriously. On Thursday, Accenture and Girls Who Code released their joint research finding that the share of U.S. women in technology jobs will decline from 24 percent to 22 percent by 2025 — “a new low over the next 10 years, despite so much focus recently on closing the gender gap in tech,” says Accenture’s report. In the same token, it states:

“[I]nterventions to encourage girls to pursue a computer-science education could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million, growing their share of technology jobs from 24 percent today to 39 percent in the same time frame.”

I’ll never forget my interview a few years back with Colleen Blake, one of our 2013 HR’s Rising Stars.  At the time, she was the senior director of global people operations for San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communication Systems Inc.

A busy mom, but with a rich past in information technology and science, she was also passionate about encouraging women in STEM careers. Her company, in fact, realizing its own deficits in that area, asked her to be its liaison and mentor for women pursuing those fields.

As she recalls, Brocade leaders “had approached me when I returned to work [after her daughter’s birth] and said, ‘Colleen, we have this problem encouraging women in this field.’ To be tapped on the shoulder like that felt like a real sign for me, that I was meant to do this — not just for me, but for my daughter as well.”

It does kind of baffle the mind that, with so much attention to the problem and with crusaders like Blake, we’re getting worse, not better. What this means for you, I can’t pretend to know, though creating better support systems for women in tech does come to mind. Perhaps it’s best to leave you with two cogent quotes from the Accenture release. The first, from Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code:

“Despite unprecedented attention and momentum behind the push for universal computer-science education, the gender gap in computing is getting worse. The message is clear: A one-size-fits-all model won’t work. This report is a rallying cry to invest in programs and curricula designed specifically for girls. We need a new mind-set and willingness to prioritize and focus on our nation’s girls, and we need it now.”

And this, from Julie Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America:

“Dramatically increasing the number of women in computing is critical to closing the computer-science skills gap facing every business in today’s digital economy. Without action, we risk leaving a large portion of our country’s talent on the sidelines of the high-value computing jobs that are key to U.S. innovation and competitiveness.”

Couldn’t agree more.