Could STEM scholarships for women be the key to closing the gender gap in tech?

How can companies help bridge the existing gender gap in tech?

The numbers aren’t encouraging.

Despite women making up 59% of the US labor force and almost 51% of the entire US population, according to the US Census Bureau, only 30% of workers in the tech industry are women. That figure drops to a paltry 16% when you look at the engineering workforce within the tech industry. If you’re wondering about open source, women make up only 6% of users on GitHub.

Many women are unfortunately deterred from entering the field, noting that the scarcity of women seems isolating and that subtle discrimination still exists in the sector. While the ethical imperative for gender equity is quite clear, recent research has also demonstrated that gender balanced teams tend to outperform predominantly male or predominantly female teams, offering a strong business rationale for closing the gender gap in tech as well.   

So in a sector that prides itself on being full of the best and brightest problem-solvers, how do we tackle the persistent problem of the gender gap in tech?

It’s a complex issue with many roots that must be addressed through a number of thoughtfully connected solutions. STEM scholarships, one solution among many, begin to address these issues directly by providing key monetary resources, offering a sense of community among the recipients and sidestepping closed networks that limit access to mentorship and support for young women. Companies like Intel, Google, and General Assembly have begun to offer their own STEM scholarships geared towards women and other underrepresented groups in order to bring more diverse talent into the overall pipeline.

But how effective are STEM scholarships as a tool to close the gender gap in tech? The evidence suggests that they could be very effective when aligned with other complementary solutions. Here’s how:

Meeting an immediate need

STEM scholarships are most effective when it comes to offering the chance for women to participate in the tech workforce in the near term. These awards often come with financial resources, one-on-one mentorship with senior developers and a foot-in-the-door with top companies -- the building blocks for successful careers in tech. Such scholarships serve dual purposes as both a great recruitment tool for companies and a way for companies to improve the skills of their future workforce. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Stronger targeted recruitment of women through offering STEM scholarships is a positive step that has the potential to lessen isolation and discrimination over time by pushing more women into the field in general, and many companies are working hard to fill their recruitment pipelines with greater numbers of women at the outset. STEM scholarships certainly incentivize women into the broader tech talent pool given the benefits that they offer, increasing the overall proportion of women in the field.

By providing material resources through STEM scholarships and shifting the way they recruit in order to target more women, tech companies and their partners are beginning to step up to the challenge of closing the gender gap.

At the same time, broader cultural issues relating to how women are portrayed in the media and by their colleagues in tech still abound. Scholarships are certainly not the be-all and end-all solution, but they provide important initial access points into the tech sector and help to develop a new narrative as women in tech excel and begin to shift the dialogue through their own leadership in the field.

Developing stronger pathways into STEM

While offering STEM scholarships are definitely a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to create pathways for women into the tech sector. Currently, no states actually require a computer science (CS) class for high school graduation. Therefore, the vast majority of students do not take a single computer science course throughout their K-12 education. At the same time, only 25% of high school principals report that their school offers a CS course that includes programming, and only 5% of high schools are certified to offer AP computer science.

With so few schools offering CS, this amplifies gender, class, and racial disparities as jobs and opportunities go to those who have the resources to gain an extracurricular computer science background. Tech companies like Google have responded by rolling out education programs such as CS First which are meant to supplement what students learn in K-12 schools by providing them access and exposure to computer science through after-school and summer programs.

Another example is Etsy and Intel partnering with organizations such as Girls Who Code and Girl Develop to build strong educational programs that support aspiring female developers by helping them acquire hard skills and giving them positive female tech role models. These companies and organizations are working towards creating a much more robust pool of female candidates from which top companies can recruit. Education programs like these partner well with STEM scholarships to make a stronger strategy for closing the gender gap in tech.

Cohesive strategies is critical

A multi-faceted problem like the gender gap in tech requires a multi-pronged set of solutions.Tech companies are catching onto this quickly and working with partner organizations to connect their various strategies to solve both short-term and long-term gender gap issues. In the near term, strengthening recruitment efforts with generous STEM scholarships for women and targeted campaigns to support female tech talent can immediately boost women’s representation in tech.

In the longer term, building stronger pathways for women to enter the workforce with STEM training during secondary education is needed to ultimately close the gender gap as it exists today. With expanded in-school training, STEM scholarships will continue to be strong tools in the broader effort to bring more women into the tech sector.

These strategies all need to be connected in order to shift the broader narrative around women in tech and finally close the gender gap in the sector.

What other strategies and initiatives do you think will help bridge the gender gap in tech?


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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