More attention from a research, policy and institutional strategy perspective is paying off in attracting more female faculty and researchers in STEM at the college level, which in turn is attracting more female students -- good news for the tech industry as it faces an impending talent crunch.
Nicole Engelbert, director of research and analysis and principal analyst in Ovum Ltd. 's Higher Education team, shared this encouraging point of view with Women in Comms on a recent live radio show. She pointed out that Forbes and the annual Best College lists are now ranking institutions on how well they are doing in STEM recruitment and getting teachers to tenure. (See WiC Radio: Tune In to Hear the Ovum Outlook.)
"A big hurdle society and institutions have to grapple with is when the process for tenure happens," she explained. "As a junior faculty member is preparing her research and getting her publications and getting grants, they are popping up against when people typically start families. It often happens right in the middle of when they'd be coming up for tenure."
Some progressive universities are rethinking how everyone goes about getting tenure or putting new policies in place to help women, but it is still a big challenge in the education field, Engelbert said. (See Which States Have the Smallest Gender Gap in STEM Occupations? )
You may wonder why tenure of female teachers affects the overall percent of women pursuing STEM degrees, but there's a clear correlation. When women don't see other women in similar positions, they tend to discount that as a viable career path. They also lose out on mentoring and networking opportunities. The culture tells them it's not a field for women and, unfortunately, this has been happening in STEM -- especially the technology element of it -- for a long time now. (See Mentors Among Us: 65 Inspiring Women in Comms.)
It actually starts much earlier than the college years, too. Young girls and boys are targeted with different toys deemed appropriate for their gender. Girls are encouraged away from analytical pursuits by something as simple as only giving boys Legos, and they are reinforced when they find math hard. (See A Man, a Mission & an Underwater Flashlight and BT, Ericsson, O2 & Vodafone Mentor Girls in STEM.)
"The acquisition of those analytical skills, acquisition of spatial reasoning skills, set children up when they get into elementary school to have more facility with math and science at the more basic levels," Engelbert said. "Then in middle and high school, they have more confidence with algebra, geometry and calculus, and then they have issues getting into a top flight engineering or computer science program. You are sorting and sorting students… If you give Legos to more little girls, would we ultimately have more girls majoring in math, computer science a generation later? Perhaps no, but perhaps yes, and why do we need to have toys gendered?"
Whether we end this vicious cycle and get more women entering and staying in the tech field should matter to everyone, because the industry as a whole faces a huge talent crunch. There are thousands of unfulfilled jobs and not enough people with the skills to fill them. You can't ignore 51% of the population -- women -- when the need for more talent is so acute. (See AT&T's Donovan: Women Adapt Faster Than Men.)
This is a point that Kate Kuehn, head of security practice for BT Americas, echoed on a Security Now radio show last week as well. She noted it can take her six to nine months to fill a post because the company is not getting enough candidates in the door at any level. There are so many job openings that there simply aren't enough candidates to fill them. (See BT VP: Women Should Fill Security Talent Gap and Women in Information Security: Voice of Security Radio.)
She thought part of the reason for the lack of women, in particular, could be that job descriptions tend to be written in a way to attract the traditional white male interviewee, but both Kuehn and Engelbert also pointed out that women tend to opt out of jobs they don't feel 100% qualified for, a trait that is holding them back.
"Women will typically wait until they feel fully qualified to take on a new opportunity, and that is much to their detriment," Engelbert said. "In such a rapidly changing environment, you will always be 'flying that plane as you build it.' That's the mantra of our industry."
Incentive programs that offer around $10,000 to diverse candidates won't be effective at retaining women in the field either, Engelbert said. It requires equipping workers with the skills needed to succeed, improving the culture in tech to make women want to work there and having the confidence to reach for new positions. While she isn't a fan of incentive programs, Engelbert was a fan of scholarships to encourage women, especially those who may have not access to the same level of social capital or connections as students from upper-class families to learn to code, study tech and pursue further education. (See STEMing the Decline: Scientists Appeal to the Next Generation.)
Engelbert is optimistic about women's future in the tech industry and in education as well. With the fourth industrial wave approaching, disruption is happening at a faster rate in our industry, and her advice to women is to be able to ride the wave of disruption effectively and see beyond the risks to the opportunity. (See Marcus: Own Your Ambition; Stay the Course.)
"Whether that comes from a master's degree or experience or both, I think that's one thing women should really be looking at developing -- their capacity for innovation, capacity for tolerating or embracing ambiguity, capacity for finding the pattern in the chaos," she said. "It's not so much about advanced degrees, but putting together experiences and expertise to have those more horizontal skill sets. It's really valuable in today's ICT industry."
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms