Updated: Jun 6, 2021
On the fourth Thursday of April, we celebrated the International Day of the Girl, ICT. With our increasingly digital world, expertise in information and communication technologies has become imperative in the workplace. The UN estimates that there will be around two million job vacancies in the ICT sector over the next five years. However, although the industry is growing rapidly, its internal gender imbalance remains a concern. Today, women are still outnumbered by men, making up only 28% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. Gender discrimination in the workplace has also pushed many women out of STEM fields. Studies show that half of women in tech leave by the age of 35. The 2019 pandemic only exacerbated this gender imbalance. As women primarily shoulder the burden of child care and family life, 50% of women said the pandemic had slowed their career progression. We can trace this gender imbalance in the workplace back to our education system. The American Association for University Women called a "confidence deficit" in STEM subjects that started as early as CE2. Research has shown that many girls lose confidence in math in 3rd grade. In contrast, in elementary grade 1 (CE1), boys are more likely to be confident in their math skills. This confidence deficit then continues in higher education as men outnumber women in STEM. Statistics from 2015 show that only 18% of computer science degrees and 20% of engineering degrees went to women. The lack of women studying STEM subjects then leads to a lack of women in technology in the workplace.
One of the reasons for the lack of women in STEM education is that they lack role models. The representative faces of success in STEM fields, such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla's Elon Musk, and Apple's Steve Jobs, are all predominantly white and male. While there are still plenty of successful women in tech like Susan Wojcicki of Youtube, Whitney Wolfe Herd of Bumble and Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, they don't get the same exposure as their male counterparts. Without seeing faces like theirs in tech, girls are less likely to pursue a career in tech as a viable path. Another factor contributing to girls' lack of interest in STEM subjects can sometimes be related to the attitude of their teachers. A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that when female teachers express their own concerns about math, it often spills over to female students, leading them to be less confident about their math performance. This anxiety has been shown to have a negative impact on students' academic performance. This transmission of mathematical anxiety creates a feedback loop. As they (teachers) influence their female students to be less confident in math as well, this again contributes to the gender imbalance in STEM. It can be hypothesized that the gender gap is not a reflection of a lack of capacity, but of a lack of encouragement.
The gender gap in STEM also intersects with issues of race and class. Research has also shown that black girls are particularly more likely to see themselves as math underdogs. Some teachers even have prejudices that confirm this point of view, further discouraging these students. It is also shown that low-income students and black and Latino women are less likely to take advanced STEM courses and go into STEM-related fields. Research has also shown that household income is a determinant in how students perform in STEM subjects. Thus, the rules of the game are already unequal between the sexes. There are also even more disparities for girls of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. Organizations like Black Girls Code, Latina Girls Code, and schools like the Bay Area's Promise Academy that offer STEM programs for low-income students are rising to address these achievement gaps. Ultimately, the current tech imbalance is deeply rooted and nuanced. A comprehensive solution means promoting equality in education for all demographic groups from an early age. Be sure to check out our next post on potential solutions!