So, lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, including my own field of web development. Over the last few years it’s become something of a hot topic. When the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicts a shortfall of 1 million STEM workers over the next decade, people tend to talk.
Why should women want to work in STEM fields? That’s easy. As the Department of Commerce pointed out, “women earn on average 33 percent more when they work in these high-growth fields.” (Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation [August 2011].)
So, duh. Who wouldn’t want to earn more money? Need more incentive to follow your interest in, say, computers? Forget about e-Harmony. If you're a young woman looking to meet guys, sign up for a CS class. Seriously.
With the economy as rough as it is, you’d think women would be flocking to majors in technology and computer science, including web development. Yet the data shows women aren’t entering those fields in college. A recent study by the AAUW revealed that, though "as many girls as boys leave high school prepared to pursue science and engineering majors in college...By [college] graduation, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field”—in some fields, women make up less than 20% of graduates. In fact, in 2008-09 a mere "31.0% of the degrees in STEM fields were earned by women" (Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
What the heck is going on? We know it’s not a lack of smarts. Girls do as well as boys in these subjects right up through high school. I doubt that girls reach 18 and suddenly don’t care about making a decent living. So what discourages these otherwise capable young women from pursuing the math, science and technology studies they were so good at in high school?
A 2012 Yale study published by the National Academy of Scienes may shed some light. In their study, the researchers proved "that physicists, chemists and biologists are likely to view a young male scientist more favorably than a woman with the same qualifications. Presented with identical summaries of the accomplishments of two imaginary applicants, professors at six major research institutions were significantly more willing to offer the man a job. If they did hire the woman, they set her salary, on average, nearly $4,000 lower than the man’s. Surprisingly, female scientists were as biased as their male counterparts" (Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students).
Is there gender bias against women in the fields of science, math, engineering and technology? Studies say yes. The research indicates that men and women in web development and other tech fields look less favorably on females. Most women in our industry would agree. It’s not easy being in the minority, and women can find it dificult to be accepted in the traditionally machismo world of development.
No one likes to think of themselves as biased. We need to believe we are good and fair people...which is why denial often comes into play at this point. But the best way to meet statistics like these is acceptance--accept the fact that we're all a little prejudiced, shake your head at the innumerable follies of humankind, then vow to do do better and move on.
In a recent survey of women in technology, the majority of them cited a supportive mentor and opportunities to learn as major factors in their choosing and sticking with a career in development. In other words, helping a young woman learn to code might just make her want to go into and stay in web development. Helping each other doesn't seem like a big price to pay now, does it?