By Katina Papulkas, senior education strategist, Dell Technologies.
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), 47% of all employed adults in the U.S. are women, but only 25% hold computing roles. Racial, ethnic and economic disparities also present a significant gap among STEM fields. Of the 25% of women working in tech, just 5% are Asian, while Black and Hispanic women accounted for 3% and 1%, respectively.
Diverse thinking in the workforce drives innovation by drawing from new perspectives and experiences. With fewer women pursuing degrees and careers in STEM, there is a critical need for more significant equity in the industry. Part of this inequity starts in early in life, with young girls who can’t see themselves in STEM roles. Research shows that when asked to describe a typical scientist, engineer, mathematician, or computer programmer, 30% of girls say they envision a man in these roles.
Making this change starts in schools, with accessible STEM programs, meaningful mentorship and access to technology so students can build their skills.
Nurturing STEM Skills
Creating a diverse STEM ecosystem starts in the classroom with programs that make technology accessible and fun for girls at a young age. This can and should be a unified effort with programs supported by the technology community that take place in school, removing as many barriers as possible.
Girls Who Game, an extra-curricular program for students in fourth to eighth grade that’s lead by Dell Technologies, Microsoft and Intel, is one example of how to make technology enriching, engaging and exciting. The program provides an opportunity for young girls and underserved students across North America to learn more about gaming and the use of Minecraft as a learning tool. It goes beyond tech to also build global competencies, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.
Engaging the right individuals is also important. Programs like this can provide a personalized, safe and supportive community, with women in STEM acting as coaches, mentors and role models. Students walk away with a greater self-awareness of their skills, and are empowered to continue growing in STEM.
Mentorship is one of the most essential tools to encourage girls and women to pursue STEM education and careers. Research shows girls with a connection to another woman in a STEM profession are 61% more likely to feel engaged in STEM activities. Yet less than half of high school girls know a woman in a STEM career.
In addition to having a resource with knowledge of the industry and established connections, a female mentor shows young women that they can succeed and help shatter preconceived notions about gender and career paths. Mentors help build students’ self-respect, self-esteem and can become lifelong partners who guide them throughout their careers.
School districts should actively seek out mentorship opportunities, make it as easy as possible to participate and offer rewarding incentives for staff members who mentor. For example, by rolling out programs like Girls Who Game, districts can match students with mentors actively working for major technology companies like Dell, Intel and Microsoft. These lifelong mentorship connections and resources for students of all backgrounds are critical for those who may not have immediate access to technology amid remote learning.
Access to Tech
An estimated 12 million kids in the U.S. lack adequate internet or computing devices at home. During the pandemic, teachers and administrators rapidly shifted to teaching online. Yet, the inability for some students to access basic tools means they aren’t able to participate in remote learning, putting them at risk of falling behind. Programs like Girls Who Game provide a fun, engaging option for students who may be less inclined to participate in virtual environments – One student in the program had stopped attending virtual classes altogether, but continued participating in Girls Who Game, which kept her involved. Creating a learning environment that students enjoy can be crucial to student success in remote learning environments.
Engaging with technology to develop new skills and pursue careers is even more crucial as the digital economy expands and industries transform. Yet, research demonstrates that just handing out devices to students doesn’t lead to improved learning without the right guidance. Once students have these important tools, they need the digital literacy skills to engage fully with the online curriculum and educational applications which will enable them to learn from anywhere.
Programs that both provide software and devices, as well as the critical guidance, training and mentorship are poised to help budding scientists, gamers and mathematicians thrive. Girls Who Game is just one example of how these critical elements can be combined, with both physical access to technology, as well as step-by-step guidance so students can envision success in the classroom and beyond.
Addressing the shortage of women in technology roles requires an active effort from everyone within the technology and education communities. Starting at the elementary school level, districts should invest in the programs, mentorship and technology. This is where developing a STEM workforce that includes women begins—and it’s fundamental to keeping the United States at the forefront of innovation today and tomorrow.