On International Women’s Day, Thoughts On Gender And STEM

Editor’s Note: Wende Cover joined as the new Director of Media and Communications in June 2011, where her primary focus and role on the promotion of the Internet Society’s vision, mission, and values.

In nearly every country in the world, technology plays a major role. Yet, even though women make up half the global population, they make up only a fraction of technology college graduates and the technology workforce. And, there’s a disturbing trend in some regions of the world where the number of women pursuing education and careers in technology fields are declining.

As we commemorate International Woman’s Day 2015, we decided to explore why the number of  women entering technology fields does not reflect the global population. We asked four members of the Internet Society Hall of Fame for their insights on how to attract more girls and women to careers in technology.

  • Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).
  • Elizabeth Feinler, who pioneered and managed the U.S. Defense Department’s ARPANET and the Defense Data Network (DDN).
  • Nancy Hafkin, who worked to build Africa’s ICT framework.
  • Radia Perlman, who helped transform Ethernet into a protocol able to handle large clouds.

IHOF: Why hasn’t the Internet economy produced a higher percentage of women in technology?

Hafkin: Technology is embedded in society. And in society, gender roles, gender stereotypes and gender bias impede girls’ and women’s uptake of technology. While females are using the Internet and social media at the same if not greater rate than males in the U.S. today, that does not carry over to pursuing STEM careers.

Feinler: I think the recent economy plays a role. When a family’s house is in foreclosure or jobs are scarce or non-existent,women tend to be the ones that suffer. They take any job available to make ends meet, and forego their ambitions to keep families together. Also, one is more reluctant to take on student loan debt in a bad economy. However, we are finally coming out of that period, and it was probably an aberration to the overall problem of women choosing or graduating in STEM.

IHOF: Does the male-dominance of technology and science dissuade young girls from pursuing a STEM career?

Feinler: Early on it probably doesn’t. Early on, the family has the most influence on whether they approve of women in male-dominated fields. Though parents may want their girls to choose careers that are typically for women – teaching, nursing, etc. – or they may emphasize that marriage or being feminine is a girl’s first priority, or that math is hard and not for girls, etc. If young girls are not so influenced, I think they tend to pursue what interests them. TV has almost no programs that show attractive, astute technical women in favorable roles. Teens follow what they see, and what they see is that STEM isn’t sexy or popular for girls. We need a campaign for girls in STEM equal to the hype for boys in sports.

Esterhuysen: Just take The Big Bang Theory as an example. Moreover, sitting in front of a computer and coding is seen as anti-social, and girls continue to be socialized to be social and sociable, and their self-esteem is often more connected with their social lives more than with their academic achievements.

Perlman: Girls have an unrealistic image of what technology is – they think that going into tech means you have to be good at taking things apart. That’s the image that we see so much of today.

IHOF: Is there sexist segregation in subject matters or curriculum, or in teaching methods or attitudes, that discourage girls from taking up technology?

 Esterhuysen: This varies from country to country, and also between rural and urban communities, and is based on class. I would say that in most developing countries they are not doing enough. There is definitely still a degree of sexist segregation in subject matter in many schools. STEM careers generally require further training, and it can take longer before young girls are able to earn and bring money home. But education focusing on individual attributes and needs is resource intensive and requires dedicated educators. I do think that young girls – pre-teenage years – like to hang out with one another, and group activities involving STEM type learning would work well for them. [But] I think it varies by country rather than by region. I am an advocate of affirmative action for girls in countries where they traditionally do not go into STEM careers.

Hafkin: The U.S. White House Office on Science and Technology has undertaken extensive efforts to interest girls in technology – both in schools and in non-formal education settings. In the countries that I studied in the Gender [Equality] in the Knowledge Society assessments, the country that did the best was Brazil. There the key difference was a national science and technology policy that actively promoted girls and women, with scholarships and other encouragement that continued through the education and research system.

 IHOF: Do girls or women have different attributes or natural aptitudes, or are there non-tech disciplines, that could draw them into tech vocations?

Perlman: The strengths of women, in general, include empathy and teamwork, those who can get along with others and mediate group dynamics. If you are a conceptual thinker and always loved puzzles, but don’t love the hands-on, taking-things-apart aspects of tech, there’s a great need for you in the technology sector.

Feinler: Girls are particularly good at writing and expressing themselves. This should make them naturals for designing web sites and simplifying complex concepts. Also designing any kind of user interface or developing user-friendly documentation or help systems. In the sciences, girls may lean towards biology – how things are created, grow and interact.

Esterhuysen: I often find that women are reluctant to ask tech questions and to come to grips with the answers. At the same time, in the many years of user training that I did, I usually found that women picked up new skills quicker than men did. But they were also often more afraid of making mistakes.

 IHOF: How do role models and mentors inspire or help girls pursue tech careers?

Perlman: Women, given proper encouragement and mentoring, can excel in the digital world. [But] there’s a dire lack of role models. Male hiring managers are too often looking for younger version of themselves. That means they’re looking for a male – which leads to fewer role models for girls.

Esterhuysen: I think mentoring programs can work really well, but they are not enough. Mentoring requires mentors and for mentors to exist we need more women in the sector, particularly in leadership positions. In 2014 we launched the FeministPrinciples of the Internet in an attempt to capture this gendered approach to the Internet.

Hafkin: Have you heard about the Women in Computing gallery at the British National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park? That is full of female role models, including those who worked closely with Alan Turing – I am in that gallery, too. Of course, highly placed women in tech should be doing more to inspire girls and to make possible work-life balance forwomen working in tech. 

IHOF: How would you convince companies and organizations to begin mentoring program?

Feinler: If companies want good science and technical staff, they should make time – or insist – that their staff do some form of mentoring: job fairs, talks to schools, helping teachers develop courses or whatever would pay off for the work the company does. Endless time and money is spent to market company products. They need to make a parallel investment in developing good potential talent.

Perlman: Companies have to stop tolerating bullies. Good people, including a lot of women, get discouraged by company politics and power-plays, yet bullying is often rewarded today. Eliminating that would attract many more women to the field.

 Esterhuysen: But the primary challenge is to make workplaces gender equal environments. This involves pay equality, providing women with flexible working hours, having women on their boards, in leadership positions in these boards and in management. They have to have a zero tolerance policy towards sexism and make sure that the workplace is one in whichwomen feel safe and respected, whether they are doing tech jobs or not.