I understand Dr. Oakley’s arguments. The low number of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is very complicated. In Lean In Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, suggested stereotype threat “is one of the key reasons that so few study computer science.” Women are more likely to pursue careers seen as more appropriate for women.
Often overlooked is that many women come to STEM careers after pursuing something else. For example, Dr. Oakley graduated from university with a degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. Five years later, she pursued her degree in Electrical Engineering. Turner, Bernt, and Pecora (2002) noted that “the field of information technology is a roadway with many on-ramps . . . for many successful women, interest and talent in IT emerged gradually and developed overtime” (p. 16). One survey of 275 women in IT found only a third had an undergraduate degree in IT or computer science.
In 2006 I published a research study conducted with an IT professional, Karen Black, who came to IT after she was in the workplace, and also co-authored by a university colleague, Mary Ann Edwards, DBA, who came to academe after working in industry. Part of our paper was a literature review of factors affecting STEM decisions for women. In 2013 I blogged about our findings. Here are several highlights:
- For women pursuing undergraduate degrees in IT or computer science, by far the most frequently mentioned influence: fathers. The enthusiasm of fathers for engineering or IT was “infectious.” Parents were highly influential but especially fathers.
- Surveys suggested some educators were discouraging: High school teachers (17%); guidance counselors (12%) –“not a field for girls.”
- Schools emphasizing mathematics and science produced more women interested in STEM.
- Positive experiences with mathematics correlated with interest in pursuing in STEM degrees.
- STEM marketing should embrace the problem-solving, creativity, and variety in these careers.
1. Increasing the percent of women in STEM careers will take time. Early influences are easy to overlook and difficult to affect as a society. The finding about fathers I found surprising so I discussed with a good friend, a woman prominent in IT. She agreed with the finding and suggested the seeds are sown by the 6th grade. It would be interesting to see if this finding is still valid.
2. I agree with Sheryl Sandberg about stereotyping. I think Barbara Oakley makes a similar point. From media to some educators, there is a message that STEM careers just aren’t for women. To some degree rumors from male-dominated tech cultures may feed that stereotyping. But there are women in key positions in tech companies. Women leaders in tech may be the best to diagnose the problem and seek solutions.
3. There is much interest in getting women into STEM degree programs. I think it is important to remember the many on-ramps. For women whose interest in STEM comes later, institutions of higher education and companies might find ways to provide educational support.
4. I agree that STEM careers have opportunities for problem-solving and creativity. These positive attributes should be built into STEM marketing and media.
Ballard, J., Scales, K., & Edwards, M. A. (2006). Perceptions of information technology careers among women in career development transition. Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, 24 (2), 1-9.
Oakley, B. (2018, July 14/15). "Why do women shun STEM? It's complicated. The Wall Street Journal.
Image modified from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/693727. Public domain. https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/
© John Ballard, PhD, 2018. All rights reserved.
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