How can we encourage and support women to pursue long-term careers in STEM?
By Tendü Yoğurtçu (Vice President of Engineering, Syncsort)
Over the last decade the demand for coders has grown exponentially nationwide. Unfortunately, this demand has not translated into a large increase in the number of women in the tech space, which is a huge problem.
Studies have shown that men and women approach the solutions to the same complex problems differently. In an industry as complicated as technology, it is critical that there is a diverse population attacking these problems in a variety of different ways.
So, the question remains, why are there so few women pursuing technology oriented careers and how do we remedy this problem?
Back to Basics
The source of the problem starts at home and is reinforced throughout grade school. We live in a society that emphasizes gender specific toys at an early age. When I was a kid, I was offered a variety of choices for toys, such as building blocks and puzzles that cultivate problem solving skills, along with dolls. My favorite toys were Legos and other assorted building blocks.
I was fortunate to have a family that nourished my curiosity and pushed me to follow my passion for math and science, but few children are so fortunate. It is important we start to reexamine these gender specific stereotypes.
Challenging the Clichés
Companies like GoldieBlox, a toy company on a mission to inspire the next generation of female engineers, are making great strides to change the social status quos and encourage girls with STEM skills to acknowledge and investigate those passions.
I am also a huge advocate of initiatives like the Hour of Code, launched by Code.org, which aims to introduce coding to kids at a very young age and make programming accessible to everyone. It is critical that these kids see their idols, celebrities, basketball players, and social media stars, involved in coding and associate technology with fun.
Girls Learning Code is also a great initiative that aims to help girls see technology in a whole new light – as a medium for self-expression, and as a means for changing the world. It is especially important that established female techies make their presence known, and go the extra mile to mentor and inspire the young women who have expressed an interest in eventually entering the space that we have come to love.
Mentors Make a Difference
Mentorship has a couple of different aspects. An important one is to show young girls the impact of having a technical background ─ the same goes for science. Mentors need to help them focus on how this background will impact their career path – how will it help them advance, its impact on their earnings potential, etc. According to www.whitehouse.gov data, women who work in STEM on average earn 33% more than their counterparts in other fields.
STEM in Schools
In education, girls frequently outperform boys in science and math during elementary, middle and high school, but very few of them pursue STEM-related majors in higher education. Many technology companies will invest a great deal of resources in an effort to recruit young women at the high school and college level, but unfortunately, due to societal stereotypes many children have been brainwashed by the time they reach high school, and it is too late.
It is critical that tech education and recruitment starts at an even earlier age. Having role models and mentors during transition from high school to college is very important in choosing a career path. Some of the universities, such as Stevens, have STEM ambassador programs to promote diversity and are actively involved in high schools to address this.
Fostering curiosity at an early age is the first step towards bridging the tech field gender gap, but the second step is transforming this male-dominated landscape into one that is more conducive to females. Many young women desire the ability to balance having kids and raising a family, while still maintaining successful, forward moving careers.
Family and Flexibility
A common mindset among young women who desire to one day raise a family is that it may be wiser to pursue a more time flexible career path, such as teaching. It is essential that tech companies make a strong effort to overcome those reservations with programs and policies that foster an environment of trust and job security when it comes to maternity leave and child rearing. There are a number of companies that have begun to make that change.
At Syncsort, I was able to continue as a technical architect during my maternity leave, and the company was very supportive and flexible during the entire process. I think if companies are able to effectively communicate their flexibility at the outset of employment, it will be incredibly beneficial and will help encourage women to enter the landscape.
Female Role Models in STEM
It also helps to have other women as role models in STEM careers. At Syncsort, about 30 percent of the engineering team is female, including many women in leadership roles. This helps foster a comfortable environment for both genders, where everyone feels they are valued for their skills and gender does not play a role at all in their success.
Then comes the next phase of mentorship where we, as women in STEM fields, need to be more vocal about our experiences and what it takes to move forward. We are often shy about sharing our experiences as we do not want to be seen as “women” and be perceived as “people” and avoid being labeled ─ but it is our duty.
Time to Combine Forces
The technology industry needs to reexamine the old adage that “none of us are as smart as all of us.”
In an industry as important as technology, it is critical that we exhaust all resources available to us. We need all hands on deck to continue to innovate. Silicon Valley is ready to embrace the female techie, engineer and coder. It is our responsibility as a constantly evolving society to provide young women with the resources, benefits, and encouragement necessary to eliminate the current gender gap.
Interested in a more lively discussion on Women in STEM? ScribbleLive recently hosted a live chat titled, “Women in Technology: Addressing the Shortage of Women in STEM Jobs” ─ I participated along with Cecily Carver, Co-Director of Dames Making Games, Jen Lamere, a 17-year-old who won the TVnext Hackathon, Laura Plant, Director at Ladies Learning Code; and Mélanie Attia, Director of Digital Marketing at Silanis Technology. We discussed why there aren’t more women in STEM, the obstacles they face, and what can be done to improve representation of women in STEM careers.
The good news is there is a lot going on and initiatives underway to inspire women in STEM. Here’s to plenty more.