I am often asked, “How did you get into this line of work?” For virtually my whole academic and professional career, I have been a woman in an environment dominated by men. I studied engineering and focused on manufacturing and operations. I chose to do my graduate work at MIT. I have spent most of my technical career in manufacturing and warehousing, on highly analytical projects, or with software developers. I chose a career path, perhaps, somewhat unwittingly, that few women choose.
Why did I end up on this path that so few women do? Maybe it was because I had great engineer role models in my family. Yes, they were men, but they were always very supportive of my many interests and big believers in me — so when it came time to choose what to study, I thought that a career like theirs might be a good choice. It was by no means a sure thing; I had varied interests and could have ended up in music, law, or journalism as easily as in engineering. However, I remember my interest was eventually piqued through a great, cross-functional undergrad program that allowed me to take plenty of business and liberal arts classes — more than is typical — along with the engineering core. It was that program that fanned my ember of interest into a flame, and set me on the career path I still walk today.
But now, years later, I realize that I was the exception. I had taken the path less traveled. And as I’ve traveled down this path, I’ve seen the consequences of having too few women in technology jobs. The numbers alone tell a very sad story. I’ve been over these figures many times, and yet they still give me reason to pause each time that I read them:
- Men greatly outnumber women in most STEM careers. For example, just 17% of chemical engineers, 20% of software developers, and 22% of environmental scientists are women. This is despite the fact that many companies want to hire and keep qualified women for STEM-related jobs. (Source: iSeek.org)
- Less than 1% of high school girls express interest in majoring in computer science, the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. with an estimated 1.4 million computing jobs available by 2020 – and half a million jobs open right now. According to the White House’s recent TechHire announcement, the average salary for the roles that utilize these skills are 50% higher than the average private-sector American job.
- Even though 57% of Bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, only 12% of Computer Science degrees are earned by women. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse looks at degrees in STEM fields and finds that the share of STEM bachelor’s degrees going to women ticked down over the past decade. The biggest decline was in computer science, where women received 23 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2004 and just 18 percent in 2014. This decline gets more pronounced at the graduate level. (Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)
Really, the list of staggering statistics goes on and on.
So…why aren’t women interested or going into these roles? There are certainly logical reasons to pursue roles in STEM, and yet, we’re not seeing early or collegiate level interest from women. While there are many hypotheses why, I’ll highlight a few reasons that I believe are contributing to the disparity.
Bad behavior dominates the news. The list of high-profile discrimination and appalling behavior (thankfully, when it’s noticed it’s criticized), especially in technology fields, help to create the perception that these industries are hostile places for women. The circus surrounding Ellen Pao’s suit against Kleiner Perkins, her former employer, is just the most recent example of high-profile sexual harassment. Gamergate and the continuing harassment and hostility associated with those events are also still fresh. And Reddit.com is a hotbed of discussion topics where readers from the engineering industry regularly attack one another. So, for women who tend to be more team-oriented and emotionally-focused – and therefore avoid conflict – the general tone of the culture of technology can easily be viewed from afar as hostile.
However, this sense of hostility isn’t the only stigma associated with STEM-related jobs. This line of work is also often viewed as solitary, nerdy, high-pressure and less fun than those in other fields. The most common feedback I hear when I talk to potential software development students is that they don’t want to “sit alone in a cube and be on my computer all day.” What these people don’t know is that software development is extremely collaborative and that modern software development practices are focused on helping software developers find a flow in their work, leading to productivity, a sense of accomplishment, and happiness. In addition, because of the nature of software development work, some of the most flexible work arrangements are afforded to these employees. But this is not the first impression that these roles are leaving with younger people.
Just to make things worse, when we get women to test the waters in STEM, they feel like outsiders. Even a slight offense in this trial period is likely to turn women off to the field.
Why should we be worried about this?
There are some who may argue that if this is what women are choosing, let them. However, when you look at the salary disparity between STEM-related and non-STEM-related jobs, it’s easy to see why having more women in these lucrative careers can be good for them and our society.
Look at this way. Today’s women are alpha-consumers. According to Forbes, women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, through a combination of their buying power and influence. Without female input, companies design suboptimal services and products for women, sometimes even designing unsafe products, like the original airbags for automobiles.
Study after study has revealed that women make teams and organizations more effective and successful. And if that’s not enough, having women (plural) on the team helps to stop or avoid the bad cultural behavior that can develop without a woman on the team who can highlight and help correct the effects of unconscious bias and even more serious misbehavior.
So what can we do?
There is no silver bullet, of course, so we need to be trying multiple things on multiple levels at once. Here are a few things I think would make a difference.
These jobs need a bit of a makeover, or some PR if you will. The fact that women are increasingly pursuing Master’s degrees in nursing, for example, because of the perceived higher flexibility in that profession – makes me believe that if women understood how flexible and accommodating software development jobs could be, these careers would get more consideration. We need to help women understand how great a lab, software team, or engineering organization can be to work in. I recall a tour of the different labs on the engineering campus of my eventual alma mater that blew me away. They weren’t dirty or solitary. They were cool! We need to get the word out to women who are making decisions about their careers about the real story.
We need to look at every aspect of our hiring processes, from the words we use to describe our companies to the questions and processes we use to evaluate candidates. We need to root out and correct for unconscious bias and ensure the way that we describe roles or companies isn’t selling only to men.
Those of us who have had delightful experiences and careers in STEM-related fields need to continue to stand up as role models and become mentors for other women. We need to tell our stories and support the next generations of engineers, mathematicians and scientists. We also need to embrace the fact that because this conversation has gotten louder and louder across the community (and because the hiring needs are so dire), there are many men who want to be and are actively seeking to be a part of the solution. We need to tell their stories to young women as well, so that we don’t foster a culture of us-vs-them.
And we need to continue to work on ways to get younger women as excited about science and math as they are about other studies. GoldieBlox, I Can Be Barbies, books, as well as STEM-related weekend and after-school experiences, all allow young women to grow up with STEM in their lives, and are starting to open up this world to girls.
These efforts are all just starting points for real change – and a better tomorrow. We, the technology community, can’t afford to leave another generation of women behind. As someone who has lived in this world, and found success, fulfillment and much enjoyment, my hope is that more women will take this road less traveled and eventually turn it into a freeway.
Kristin Smith brings more than 15 years of experience building businesses through new products and operations at companies like Amazon.com and zulily to her role as CEO of Code Fellows.