STEM Careers: The Need to Get More Women Involved From the Start
Lisa Hook is the President and CEO of Neustar, Inc. Ms. Hook serves on a number of other corporate and non-profit boards, including Reed Elsevier PLC, Reed Elsevier NV, Reed Elsevier Group PLC, and The Ocean Foundation. In addition to her role at Neustar, Lisa also has served as a senior advisor at the Federal Communications Commission. Follow Neustar at @Neustar.
We hear a lot about the need for greater emphasis on subjects like technology and engineering that are critical to our country’s infrastructure. A recent report from the White House Council on Women and Girls said it’s “especially disconcerting” that women make up only 25% of the STEM workforce. The report goes on to suggest non-participation in STEM may have an even higher cost for women.
Pair that with a very different issue that’s regularly been the headlines this year: the number of women now running powerful technology corporations; like Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, Virginia Rometty at IBM and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!
The success of these business leaders achieving high-profile positions is something we can all applaud. But it masks a very serious problem: the real shortage of women in technology. Preparing women for these top roles must start at an early age, when education matters most.
Let’s step back a little. Running a multinational conglomerate is a pinnacle that few achieve anyway; there’s got to be better news at smaller firms, right? Women own somewhere around 50% of all small businesses, but when it comes to creating high-tech startups, they’re still in the single digits. It gets worse: Less than 10% of venture-backed companies have female co-founders, despite research suggesting that women-backed startups perform better. Finally, women make up around a third of the workforce in technology but represent less than 7% of high-tech VC partners and 15% of angel investors.
High-tech is seen as pioneering, progressive and influential. By nature, our industry doesn’t follow trends, we set them. Is this how we want to lead?
The STEM Solution
Getting women on track to be high-tech leaders has to start well before they land their first jobs. From an early age, students need more exposure to STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It refers to all those nerdy subjects some of us gravitated towards. Unfortunately, too many of those who didn’t, and don’t, are women.
The numbers are stark. According to “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” a report released last year by the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy but less than a quarter of STEM-related jobs. This number has stayed consistent even as the overall number of college-educated women has increased. Worse, women with STEM degrees are less likely than their male counterparts to go on to STEM-related occupations.
Let’s be clear about the ultimate goal here: fostering talent to fill jobs that are crucial to our economy. STEM is vital even in the short term. Despite the unemployment numbers, between now and 2017 there will be a wellspring of 1.5 million computing jobs, and that could be a conservative estimate. If current trends continue, we won’t have enough skilled graduates to fill even 30% of those jobs. In fact, only 10 U.S. states have enough qualified residents to fill the in-state computing jobs already available.
So here’s why we all need to do more.
First, the corporate interest: We’re already having trouble filling the jobs that are open, even in a bleak economy. All of us in the private sector need to do our part to prepare more women for those roles.
Second, the national interest: IT is one of the few areas in which U.S. innovation unquestionably dominates, and we need to keep it that way.
And finally, personal interest: While there’s endless debate about equal pay for equal work, here’s a statistic worth noting. According to the ESA report, women with STEM jobs not only earned 33% more than comparable women in non-STEM jobs but also considerably more than the STEM premium for men.
Technology isn’t just another vertical industry, it’s integral to every aspect of our lives, and we need people to keep those engines running. As we continue to improve the infrastructure –- creating even more bandwidth, services, software and data –- we will need an ever-increasing number of talented workers.
The Path Forward
This is going to require many skill sets and one characteristic above all: innovation. The problem is that the innovation needed to improve our existing technological infrastructure requires some knowledge of how it was built in the first place. That’s what STEM education provides and what too many students — especially women — enter the workforce without.
Yes, we are talking about public education. But I strongly believe that there’s also a role here for the private sector. For example, some states now have digital literacy programs that are designed to teach kids about technology and how to use it responsibly. Most kids are essentially ‘wired’ all the time anyway, and these programs reinforce positive habits. They benefit immensely from corporate funding and other forms of support. There are also more intensive training programs that help low-income young adults obtain hands-on skill development and college credits.
There are also broader initiatives that deserve corporate recognition and support. One of my favorites is the Anita Borg Institute, which has been working since 1997 to advance women in all aspects of technology, as well as to increase the positive impact of technology on women around the world. It has developed tools and programs to help industry, academia and government recruit, retain and develop women technology leaders.
And of course, there’s also room to bring young people into the company, such as by partnering with universities to give students the chance to work in real-world situations. STEM doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s right at the core of innovation in today’s digital economy. Getting involved in developing commercial solutions to national problems while still in school will turn students onto the opportunities that will be available to them when they graduate.
This is a complex issue and there is no single, simple answer. However, a greater emphasis on STEM is at least a big part of the solution — it will help more women go into technology and succeed in this great field.
Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory