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It’s About Time to Break the Glass Ceiling for Women in STEM

Earlier this month, The White House Council on Women and Girls released the report Keeping America’s Women Moving Forward: The Key to an Economy Built to Last — a release that coincided with the April 6 White House Forum on Women and the Economy. Among other policy issues, the report points to the underrepresentation of women in STEM, noting that, “between 2010 and 2020, STEM-related employment is projected to increase by 16.5 percent to more than 8.5 million jobs. Yet, women still represent only 25 percent of the STEM workforce.”

The operative word here being “still” women are still underrepresented in STEM careers despite decades of research and political action directed toward women in science and engineering fields.

While it is true that more women than ever are attending college, excelling in math and science in high school, and ultimately pursuing STEM fields, they remain severely underrepresented in the fields of physics, computer science and engineering—the shortage of female students eclipsed only by the dearth of female professors.

The nation should be particularly concerned about the underrepresentation of women in computing. In 2009-10 women earned less than 20 percent of computing bachelor’s degrees. Black, Hispanic and Native American women combined held just 5 percent of bachelor’s and 8 percent of associate’s degrees in computer science.

These statistics also reveal the obvious untapped pool of talent that women represent; particularly when our nation is experiencing an overall shortage of computer scientists and engineers, including at the associate’s degree level.

Despite putting billions of public and private monies into motion over the years to support women in STEM while attempting to break barriers that impede them from accessing and succeeding in STEM careers, as a nation of highly educated women, we are still coming up short.

It seems no amount of money can buy the cultural change that must occur within those STEM fields where women are most underrepresented. While technology as a catalyst for innovation has evolved in ways we could have never anticipated, the professional fields that support this ever-expanding industry seem at a cultural standstill.  

In addition to a lack of female role models, computing disciplines are well known for undervaluing the very experiences that women value in an education setting—collaboration, diversity of thought and the application of computer science to everyday life. Instead, women confront what many term a “geek” computing culture that presents itself early on as the domain of boys and men with a single-mindedness that shuts out diverse perspectives and diverse motivations for those who pursue computing education and careers.

Instead, computing departments should be widely celebrating the paramount role of technology in our interconnected, modern lives. It is the capacity of technological systems to change our world for the better that makes many women excited to pursue technology careers in the first place.

Wanted: Champions for Women in Technology

Thankfully, there are champions who are making progress in harnessing this power to reach women by way of technology as a social change agent. A number of entities—many with impressive online resources and networks—are working to celebrate and support women in computing. Among them are the Anita Borg Institute, National Center for Women and Information Technology, Girl Geeks, dot diva, and The Ada Project at Carnegie Mellon University—a leader in enrolling and graduating women in computer science.

While the voice of the few champions for women in technology is strong and unyielding, there must be more champions. And they shouldn’t be restricted to women or to those in tech fields.

Advancing the presence of women in technology should be at the top of the strategic agenda for every college president and provost—both in direct response to national need and as a moral responsibility of institutions to educate a diverse cadre of professionals in every discipline. Perhaps even more compelling is the ever-expanding role of technology in the lives of academics and the public at large.

Scientists in every STEM field rely on technology to analyze findings from the theoretical to the diagnostic. Technology plays a role in the delivery of health care, in environmental sustainability and food supply, in mass communication, media and transportation. The influence of technology in our lives is unending.

It will be our great loss if we fail to ensure diverse perspectives in education and industry, while at the same time realizing the full potential of America’s citizenry. And it would be downright ignorant to keep shuttling women away from STEM education—especially in computing—at a time when these fields are the fields of the future. Women, after all, represent nearly half of the U.S. workforce.

Higher education leaders are going to wake up to this fact if not today then tomorrow. Diversifying computing and indeed all STEM fields has moved beyond philosophy and into the realm of necessity.

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