I Belong Here: 3 Ways to Attract More Women to STEM
"It's a girl, it's a girl," the audience murmured. As my daughter took the stage to receive an award at coding camp last summer, the other parents looked at each other in surprise, every other child in the camp was a boy. My daughter was the first girl to walk on stage that morning. Where was everyone else's daughter? Why did this elementary-age tech camp already mimic the vast gender disparity of the Silicon Valley tech world?
As a mom who has spent her entire career in the technology field, this was a proud moment. But it is unfortunately a scenario that still happens all too often. Despite the rapid growth of technology in recent years, there is still a significant imbalance in gender representation when it comes to Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.
Related: Why we need more women in STEM
When Facebook and Google released their diversity numbers last year, it created a buzz of conversation on diversity in tech. Over half of the US population ages 15 to 64 is female, yet only 14 percent of computer science majors are female. A report released last year by the American Association of University Woman reports that not only do women make up only 26 percent of computer scientists and 12 percent of engineers, but the numbers have worsened over the past 30 years. This is a huge disconnect, especially considering that published studies, such as by Harvard Business Review, show having a woman on a team raises the team’s performance and collective intelligence.
As a female tech executive, I have walked into countless rooms -- including boardrooms -- where I am the only female. The difference today versus 25 years ago is that today I know I belong here. Deals done, technologies commercialized -- that's only a part of it; I don't question that I should have a seat at the decision-making table, which is as much about attitude as it is track record.
As a society, we need to make changes to not only attract women to STEM, but also to create an atmosphere in these traditionally male-dominated fields where women intrinsically belong. So what can we do to address this?
Get girls to "opt in" early.
The deficit of women in STEM starts with the fact that, according to the American Association of University Women, many girls "opt-out" of STEM in middle school. Why? Most of these girls cite an increasing lack of confidence in using technology. They see boys obsessing over Minecraft mods but generally find current video games less compelling. The answer to keeping girls engaged in technology is about reframing the paradigm.
Passion for making a difference is what gets girls into technology and it is often why they stay in tech companies. In fact some of the top performing women in both my graduate program at Harvard and in the tech industry all say things like, "I was so fascinated by figuring out how developmental genetics worked, that I couldn't stop myself.” And these women often say that it was not about the mastery of a technology itself that interested them; it was that they saw a problem and they learned the technology to solve the problem.
Girls like to engage in problem solving and making a difference in society -- according to the book “The Changing Face of Medicine”, altruism has been more highly linked to career choice for women. Research shows that girls are less likely to be interested in learning a technology for its own sake, but making technology a relevant part of solving problems that interest girls propels them to learn technology. School programs in which computers and tablets are integrated into learning and problem solving could go a long way in keeping girls in STEM through middle school because they can gain confidence as technology is integrated into daily life, and they are used to solving problems with technology. Programs like Alexa Cafe by iD Tech that teach entrepreneurship and social movements with technology as a backdrop could be another key to unleashing girls' passion and curiosity for using more technology.
Reduce unconscious bias.
We have come a long way, but we have not eliminated many of the unconscious biases, particularly in tech. The stereotypes of what it takes to be a leader and what it takes to succeed often put women at a disadvantage. For example, I've seen situations where a woman's attempt to be collaborative is interpreted as "she doesn't know what she's doing," while the same woman when being directive is labeled as "abrasive." Women leaders have to weather more criticism and prove themselves more extensively because they are typically evaluated more harshly, especially in industries that are dominated by men. In the book, "What Works For Women At Work", Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey call this the "prove it again bias". More recent work by Williams specifically looking at bias and the female scientist shows that black women bear the brunt of this bias even more than Latina, Asian or white women.
As more women enter tech careers this is slowly changing, but the number one thing we can do to reduce bias is implement objective measures of performance that they can use to measure results for both men and women. For example, imagine a tech support call center in which the measurement goal went beyond simply, "Excellent support of all customers" to "Excellent support of customers as measured by a net promoter score of 70%.” With this second goal, it would be quite clear who on the team was reaching the goal and prove it, and biases or subjective judgments would be more difficult.
Re-imagine the tribe.
Quick, think of the stereotypical person who 1) works at a software company or 2) has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard. Chances are you envisioned someone sloppily dressed who loves Star Wars and eats cold pizza. While I am both 1) and 2), I am sitting here wearing Ferragamo shoes and consider myself a bit of a foodie. (Admittedly, I do like Star Wars). Unfortunately, many young girls get the message that they don't belong in the STEM culture, either because they don't fit a stereotype or because they don't see role models that they identify with as tech leaders. Simply put, girls don't identify with the stereotypes of people in STEM careers and don't see the techie tribe as being for them. Having a mentor that they can relate to (including but not limited to gender) is a strong factor in a girl's interest in a STEM career.
Truthfully, most of my mentors have been male but they have made a difference because in one way or another they have made me feel that "someone like me" can succeed and be part of the tribe. I'll never forget when one of my mentors told me "You have what it takes to run a company someday; recognize that the locker room smack talk you sometimes hear is because they consider you a player." These mentors have personally sponsored me and my capabilities in organization discussion, and also coached me on how to position myself to effectively go after a role I wanted, saying things like, "Look, I know you can do this role, but let's talk about the hard questions they will ask about you and what you will say when those hard questions come.” Mentors and sponsors are critical to navigating the sometimes rough and tumble world of a growth company.
A feeling of belonging is one of the strongest predictors of a female being attracted to a STEM career. I have not been the victim of systematic bias but I have had my share of awkward moments as a woman in technology and I have had to hear and get past some harsh judgments. But my passion for using science to improve society has given me the grit to go after the possibility that I see. I belong not because I have been doing it for 25 years, not because I'm an executive but because I love to figure out how to solve problems and help people -- and new technology is one of my favorite ways of doing it. I belong here.
Merrilyn Datta is Chief Commercial Officer of Definiens, the Tissue Phenomics company, which is a pioneer in providing tissue image analysis solutions for biomarker and companion diagnostics in oncology. Merrilyn is an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in the technology industry, setting the strategy for the commercialization and marketing of innovative and disruptive technology in the life sciences and digital health space. She lives in California with her husband and two children.