The roots of the gender gap in STEM

Catherine Ashcraft, senior research scientist for the National Center for Women & Information Technology, explains the shortage of women in IT and how to reverse it.

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In 2012, women earned just 18 percent of the computer science undergraduate degrees awarded nationally.

Only 26 percent of the computer science workforce was female in 2013, and fewer than a quarter of the Chief Information Officers serving in Fortune 100 companies are women.

The stereotype of computing as a male-dominated profession is all too true – and in fact, the number of women in IT is shrinking.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), the share of female computer science undergraduates in 2012 was less than half what it was in 1985, when 37 percent of computer science degrees went to women. NCWIT’s research also finds that as many as 56 percent of women in private-sector IT jobs leave the industry mid-career.

Catherine Ashcraft is Senior Research Scientist at NCWIT. In addition to tracking the status of women in computing, the Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit has worked to grow the numbers of women in computing-related careers with a variety of breakthrough initiatives. These include the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing and an effort to encourage more men to sponsor or mentor women in computing careers.

Ashcraft argues that the dearth of women in computing is a loss for women, who are missing out on opportunities in a burgeoning sector. By 2022, the nation’s computing sector is expected to generate as many as 1.2 million job openings. Moreover, says Ashcraft, computing is generally more “recession-proof” than other industries, which makes these jobs secure as well as highly-paid. In 2013, the unemployment rate in computing jobs was 3.6 percent (compared to 7.4 percent overall).

The shortage of women is also a loss for companies, which are shortchanging their innovative potential as well their bottom line. Ashcraft’s cites research finding, for example, that gender-diverse work teams perform better on a variety of measures, and that companies with greater diversity are more likely to have higher revenues, more customers and greater profit than less diverse companies.


R3.0: Why is there such a significant gender gap in IT?

Ashcraft: Part of the tenacious nature of the problem is that there are several interlocking reasons.

Girls tend to have less early exposure to computing, even when they have brothers in the same family.

Part of it is peer culture – [computers] are not something that girls do or are encouraged to do in groups. At the same time, they’re watching media representations of boys – mostly white boys – with computers.

Another thing we’re looking at are the “unconscious biases” that are pervasive throughout the culture [of the industry] – in everything from the criteria for performance reviews and evaluations, to recruitment practices, and unintended biases in job descriptions. There are patterns in who gets assigned which tasks – we have evidence that women are often channeled into execution roles and not into creative or highly visible roles.

All of this adds up.

R3.0: What are companies losing when they don’t have women in the workforce?

Ashcraft: A lot of research in the past 10 years shows that diversity benefits innovation. The different kinds of life experiences people bring can make products and inventions better.

For example, several studies show that teams comprising equal numbers of men and women perform better on multiple measures, from creative problem solving to productivity. Another study of 500 American-based companies showed that diversity is correlated with increased market share and higher return on investment.

R3.0: What is NCWIT’s strategy to help reverse the shortage of women in computing?

Ashcraft: We take an ecosystem approach. There are multiple fronts we’re working on, as well as multiple levels and multiple facets on each level.

At the company level, for example, we’re working on how managers can mitigate unconscious biases. But we’re also working on top leadership – how do you get real commitment and create the right measures for accountability?

Another thing we’re trying to do is make it more obvious with different populations what’s involved in career in computing. A lot of research has shown that while younger girls may have some misperceptions about computing, what’s more pervasive is this lack of knowledge about what a computer job might be, compared to being a doctor, lawyer or other profession.

R3.0: You’ve also done some unique work around “male advocates.” Why is NCWIT breaking the more traditional model of “women mentoring women”?

Ashcraft: Part of the rationale behind this is that we want to break the perception that this is a “women’s issue.” Men benefit too.

But men also hold approximately 80 percent of the positions of power – true change can’t really happen until you have buy-in from them. We also know from past research that many men are already advocating for women. Many women say that the reason they’ve pursued a career in tech or stayed in a career in tech is because of the men in their lives – whether it’s a father, husband, brother or friend.

R3.0: What kinds of policies could accelerate the change that you’re after?

Ashcraft: There are a lot of ongoing efforts to include computing in the curriculum; to get it to count as a graduation credit; and to better prepare teachers. It’s important generally for both girls and boys, but it’s more important for girls because boys get so much more informal exposure.

We’re also interested in policies that make data more transparent. Companies have started releasing diversity numbers, and government can encourage that kind of transparency – such as among government contractors. Transparency is important because it’s otherwise difficult to measure success.

R3.0: How do you define success?

Ashcraft: Our overarching goal is the meaningful participation of women and girls in computing and technology. This means not just that they’re there but that they’re in key roles, creating and innovating.

R3.0: What’s your argument to women that they should try to enter this field?

Ashcraft: You can contribute to what the future of the world will look like. Increasingly, technology permeates every aspect of society, and if you’re not in there, you’re not going to have the chance to influence it.