01 May

Who Is Leading US Science and Technology?

If we have learned nothing else over the half a century, we have learned that diversity in leadership is not only possible, but desirable: proven success that happened regardless of race or gender has opened up doorways in academia, in business, and in politics—all the way to the presidency itself.

The question is, at what point do we go beyond allowing anyone to do anything, and hit a phase where we are counterproductive, forcing people into “opportunities” under the guise of guaranteeing diversity? And if are, indeed, hitting that point … could it arguably acceptable, since diversity has been proven to be good for the community as a whole?

For example, a couple of years ago, a leaked Google memo attempted to show how women are underrepresented in fields related to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), not because of any type of workplace discrimination, but due to inherent psychological differences between the genders. The memo cost its author, a male software engineer, his job … but it does raise the question: Are we pushing women to enter fields they have no interest or aptitude?

Perhaps we should start by assessing whether, in fact, this alleged gender gap in STEM careers actually exists: according to several measures, women are actually slightly over-represented in STEM graduate programs and earn a majority of STEM college degrees. Another author points out that—to an outside observer—we’re “steadily approaching gender parity,” based on reports that women now represent at least four in every ten enrollments in business schools overall.

These statistics are verifiable and based on multiple resources. At the same time, the definition of “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math” has been shown to be fairly fluid and subject to various interpretations, depending on the group using it. One study showed that in 2016, women earned 39% of all STEM doctoral degrees. At the same time, they only accounted for 24% of engineering and 21% of computer sciences doctorates.

In other words, women only outnumbered men in social sciences and psychology (55%) and biological and agricultural sciences (52%). Looking only at that overall statistic, it would be easy to assume that the entire gender gap in STEM fields had been nearly eliminated, and that the whole STEM-gender-gap issue was overblown.

So while women appear to have achieved (or are close to achieving) equity in the biosciences and social sciences fields, men still greatly outnumber women in the areas of computer science and engineering. Some argue that this is cause for concern, and requires immediate action to help ensure (or enforce) parity.

Others—such as the Google writer mentioned earlier—feel this phenomenon can be explained away through the notion of women’s innate preference to focus on living things…which could be interpreted as meaning that any attempts to strongly encourage female involvement with programming or engineering could be equated with forcing girls into roles they are not naturally inclined to take.

It’s simplistic to think  that girls are not naturally interested in tech careers; the facts seem to suggest that they’re actually interested in the fields…just not in careers where their contributions are devalued and their roles are diminished. Many women report gender stereotyping both in the academic and the work environment, such as being assigned menial tasks and administrative work instead of tasks that depended on their technical skills. This stereotypical attitude towards women and their abilities—particularly prevalent in areas such as technology and engineering—push women away from pursuing these careers and more towards areas where their contributions are appreciated…far more so, it would seem, than any lack of interest or ability.

Having a bias of some type is part of being human: we’re influenced by our experience. In and of itself, this is a good thing; collectively, however, these biases can create social stereotypes that have the ability to work for or against us, both as individuals and as a society.

At their worst, these values can, over the course of a lifetime, influence how “appropriate” we consider a person is for specific role. That can even effect our own thinking, limiting the possibilities we perceive to be available us.

This has leadership implications that reach far beyond the scope of just gender roles in STEM fields; as a society, it has the potential to rob us of otherwise great leaders who felt locked into “acceptable” roles. Jumping straight to the conclusion that any inequality in the diversification of leadership positions is due to inherent factors of a race or gender is at best condescending…and at worse, criminally negligent.

There are good arguments to suggest that the pursuit of a career in technology or engineering largely depends on whether there is a support system. Offering equal opportunity AND equal support should be a given: a system that needs to be implemented across all school grades, as well as being attached to internships and mentorships that allow everyone to participate and be guided with the same level of attention their counterparts receive.

Getting more girls interested in engineering and technology is only one step of the process. We must work harder to tear down the walls of false limitation that we have constructed to ensure that everyone has the freedom to make a choice, and a level playing field to for them environment in which to flourish.