STEM Education Needs More Diversity

Stephen DeAngelis

June 2, 2014

“Today,” reports Deep Nishar, “technical fields of study — and the workplaces they feed into — are attracting and retaining more white males than other candidates in the U.S. Looking back to 1984, women represented 37 percent of all computer science graduates, and today, that number is 12 percent. Both of these trends are bad for women and minorities, who are at risk of being left out of the best opportunities, and bad for our economy as a whole.” [“Getting Girls to Study STEM: It’s About More Than Just Making Science ‘Cool’,” U.S. News & World Report, 5 May 2014] Isobel Heck asserts that the trends noted by Nishar begin early in a child’s educational journey. She reports, “Underrepresented minority students in science, technology, engineering and math — known as STEM fields — named lack of preparation, stereotyping and unsupportive learning environments as the three major challenges they face.” [“Lacking foundation, minorities struggle in STEM fields,” The Brown Daily Herald, 31 October 2013] Rebecca Greenfield agrees that in the tech field there is a “dearth of women and minorities.” [“Silicon Valley Turns to an Algorithm to Solve Its Diversity Problem,” Fast Company, 30 April 2014] Claire Cain Miller labels this situation “Technology’s Man Problem.” [New York Times, 5 April 2014]

 

You might be thinking: “What’s the big deal? Who cares if the tech field is mostly dominated by white guys as long as the work is getting done?” Even if that is your attitude, you would have to sympathize with Nishar’s point that it’s not good that women and minorities are being left out of the best opportunities. You might need convincing, however, that his conclusion is true that this situation is bad for our economy as a whole. Most people will agree that high unemployment rates are not only indicative of a bad economy but ARE bad for the economy. Unemployed and underemployed workers cannot contribute to the general economic welfare of the country the way they could if they were filling good paying jobs. Because most of the well-paying jobs that will be created in the years ahead will require some kind of STEM background, it is essential for economic growth that as many students as possible receive a good education in those subjects. U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) writes, “The world has become a smaller place as technology becomes an increasing presence in our lives and changes the way we do business. Today’s economy is more competitive than it has ever been. To maintain our country’s competitiveness at home and abroad, we must invest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.” [“STEM Education and Career and Technical Training Boost Economic Prosperity,” Black Hills Pioneer, 2 May 2014]

 

Nishar, the head of products and user experience at LinkedIn, is intimately familiar with the tech field, the business sector, and the global economy. So he was intrigued when he learned that Harvey Mudd College was bucking national trends and has increased female computer science majors at the school to 40 percent, up from 10 percent. Much of the credit goes to Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and former dean of engineering at Princeton University, whom Nishar interviewed for his article. Klawe pointed out to Nishar that not all STEM subjects suffer from a lack of female students. “Young women are already very interested in biology and chemistry,” she told him. “More than half of biology and chemistry majors are female and that has been true for at least 20 years. Similarly, about 45 percent of math and statistics majors are female. We need to focus our attention on the areas like computer science (CS) and electrical engineering (EE) where there are very few females (10 percent to 15 percent of majors) and there is a high demand for more graduates.” Nishar asked Klawe, “Why do you think girls have shied away from these STEM specialties?” Her response was intriguing. She told him, “Research shows that teenage girls think that disciplines involving programming and hardware like CS and EE are boring, that they won’t do well in these courses, and the majors are mostly geeky guys with no social life.” This characterization has probably not been helped by television shows like “The Big Bang Theory.”

 

Miller thinks there may be something else going on here as well. She believes that the tech field is dominated young males who have made the industry an uncomfortable, if not hostile, environment for females. She writes:

“Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens — a slight or a major offense — and they suddenly feel like outsiders. The question for newcomers to a field has always been when to play along and when to push back. Today, even as so many barriers have fallen — whether at elite universities, where women outnumber men, or in running for the presidency, where polls show that fewer people think gender makes a difference — computer engineering, the most innovative sector of the economy, remains behind. Many women who want to be engineers encounter a field where they not only are significantly underrepresented but also feel pushed away.”

Miller indicates that this situation is particularly prevalent in startup companies. “At bigger companies,” she writes, “women say harassment may be easier to stop but that other, subtler forms of sexism persist.” Changing that culture is not going to be easy; but, it must be done. One way to start is by getting younger students (both boys and girls) learning to code side-by-side and, thus, learning to respect each other’s abilities. Culture also plays a role in keeping minority students from entering STEM fields. Heck reports that minority students are often slighted in classes involving STEM subjects because of stereotyping. Mitchell Chang, a higher education expert and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Heck, “We’ve heard from Latino students and African-American students that fellow students don’t want to include them in study groups. They think they won’t be major contributors.”

 

Rebecca Greenfield reports that one company is trying to address Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity through the use of an algorithm. She reports, “Entelo, which helps high-profile tech companies like Yelp and Facebook with recruiting, has launched a new product, Entelo Diversity. For $10,000 a year, organizations can target certain groups, like women, black men, or ‘old’ people, with certain skills for job openings using Entelo’s ‘proprietary algorithm.’ Entelo assures that its technology won’t lead to reverse discrimination, especially given the recent Supreme Court affirmative action ruling.” She continues:

“The algorithm is trying to tackle a very real problem in the tech world. Entelo developed the software as a direct response to technology companies with male-dominated engineering teams that wanted to hire more women and minorities. … Unfortunately, the algorithm does nothing about the social issues behind the hiring imbalances. Silicon Valley’s discrimination problems run too deep. Women often don’t ‘qualify’ for jobs because fewer women pursue careers and training in math and science. Multiple studies have shown that women drop out of STEM fields because of cultural, not innate, reasons. And even the women who do have all the relevant training often feel unwelcome in tech companies’ male dominated environments because of known sexism, harassment, and discrimination.”

Nishar asked Klawe how Harvey Mudd College was able to attract more women into the computer science field. She responded:

“At Harvey Mudd we’ve focused on changing four things about learning CS: make it fun, make it relevant, make it not scary and make it clear that lots of kinds of people have careers involving CS. We changed the context of the intro course to ‘creative problem-solving in science and engineering using computational approaches with Python’ instead of ‘learn to program in Java’ and made sure that the homework assignments were a lot of fun. We did not reduce the level of rigor or challenge, and we increased the amount of programming.”

This fun, problem-solving approach can be applied at all levels of education. That’s why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness. We want to introduce a fun, project-based, problem-solving approach into elementary, middle, and high schools. Through this approach, we hope to attract a more diverse group to STEM fields. It should be obvious that tackling the diversity problem is going to take both top-down and bottom-up efforts.