Women in STEM – Changing the Dialogue on Recruitment and Retention
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Giti Javidi, Ph.D., is used to feeling like the odd man – or woman – out.
Throughout her undergraduate and graduate studies in computer science, Giti was often thelonewoman in class. Familiar feelings of isolation followed Giti throughout her career and continued as she was the only female faculty member in computer science at Virginia State University’s College of Engineering for 11 years. In August 2016, she joined the College of Business at University of South Florida (USF) Sarasota-Manatee as assistant professor of information technology.
Giti’s story might sound familiar. Indicated bythe countless organizations dedicated to increasing the number of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, technical roles are still largely male dominated. In 2015, theU.S. Department of Labor reportedwomen represented just 26 percent of the STEM workforce. While this data also shows a significant increase from just 7 percent in 1970, there is clearly still work to be done.
In addition to her research at USF on visualization, big data analytics and related subjects, Giti also conducts research in issues contributing to the gender gap in STEM. Drawing from her own experience, Giti advocates for increasing participation and retention of women in STEM fields as an active member in the National Center for Women & Information Technology, among several other organizations, and has worked tirelessly at regional and national levels to raise awareness about gender and diversity issues in STEM.
“We are trying to change girls’ perception of STEM disciplines,” said Giti. “Young girls need to know that the history shows that women have had and are having great success in those fields and have helped shape the world of technology for many years.”
Interestingly, when it comes to female employment some STEM fields are outperforming others. While the percentage of women in social sciences, math, life and physical sciences, and engineering has been on the rise for several years, the percentage of female computer workers has continued to decrease since 1990.
“Despite many career opportunities in engineering, computer science and information technology, there is still a persistent gender gap in those disciplines. Most girls tend to choose science disciplines related to healthcare,” said Giti.
No matter how you cut up the data, however, the percentage of women in STEM fields overall is still low. Considering indisputable evidence about the benefits of gender diversity, it’s no wonder companies in The Corridor and across the nation are determined to fill more technical roles with women. “How can we more quickly and effectively do this?” is the million-dollar question.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet.
Kathy Sohar, Ph.D., associate director of Women’s Entrepreneurial Programs in the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida (UF), stresses the importance of an organization’s strategic initiatives to attract and support women, but also notes that simpler, less formal tactics could have an impact.
In her experience leading the University of Florida Empowering Women in Technology Startups (EWITS) program, Kathy has attracted women to STEM opportunities by simply changing the dialogue.
“If I reframe it as, ‘learn more about leadership and how to empower yourself in technology,’ that tends to be more effective in getting women interested in a STEM program than a traditional pitch focused just on the topic of entrepreneurship,” she explained.
She employs this tactic as director of UF’s Collaboratory for Women Innovators, which houses the EWITS program among its portfolio of resources and training opportunities designed to support more women to participate in commercialization, either by startinga companyor patenting their idea or technology projects. Kathy is proud to share the success of these programs in attracting women who may not have otherwise considered possibilities in STEM.
“When you get 40 women in a room having these experiences together, it is profound. At the end of the program, they report back and say, ‘Wow! I never would’ve considered myself to be an entrepreneur, and certainly not a technology entrepreneur, but now I realize I can do this and I want to do this,’” said Kathy.
Recruitment is only one piece of the puzzle, however. Once women are recruited by programs like the Collaboratory and enter the STEM workforce, retention becomes an issue critical to closing the gender gap. A study by Harvard Business Review showsmore than half of women in technology careers quit at the midlevel stage around ages 35 to 40, a “fight-or-flight” stage when leaving could be detrimental to career trajectory. Researchers identified several reasons for this attrition: colleagues’ machismo, feelings of isolation, lack of mentors, stifled performance resulting from a fear of failure and poor work-life balance.
Throughout her career in the defense industry, Teresa Pace, Ph.D., has experienced many of these. Like Giti, Teresa was often the only woman in engineering classrooms full of men, but it wasn’t until she began a career in the defense industry that she started feeling isolated. Working in an industry with roots in masculine culture, Teresa was hard-pressed to find allies or mentors and felt alone as a result. Luckily, she persevered and has now contributed her expertise to The Corridor’s hightech industry for more than 20 years.
“I think the struggles sometimes come with juggling many different things … being a parent, working full time, traveling,” add Teresa. “When a company is willing to work with you and supports a healthy balance, I think that’s what really helps with retainment.”
As she continuesadvancing her career, Teresahas been part of acultural shift, not only serving as a model for women in technology, but also as a participant in female-focused technology events. She recently attended the first-ever L3 Women’s Networking Forum, where she was joined by female leaders from across the company in discussions about their career experiences, along with forums for providing feedback and networking opportunities.
“Being a woman in a male-dominated field gives you the opportunity to give a perspective and offer up a solution that might be slightly different than your peers because you see it differently,” said Teresa. “I do believe there’s a difference between how men and women both approach problems.”
Evidenced at the event by Chairman, CEO and President Chris Kubasik’s speech on the key role women will play in the company’s “3.0 Culture,” L3 Technologies is among industry leadersthat have already identified internal factors contributing to a leaky workforce pipeline and are allocating resources to solve the problem. Efforts to value and support women throughout their technology careers will become increasingly important aswork on the early pipeline comes to fruition. In fact, the Anita Borg Institute’s 2017 report on Top Companies for Women Technologists shows the number of women entering technology careers at the entry level is already increasing, which means the glass ceiling may be lower and breaksooner for many women.
Giti summed it up best: “We all need to become more comfortable with having conversations about these issues and we need to realize that this is not about discrimination or victimization. It is about creating a welcoming culture in STEM, free of misconceptions and stereotypes, for young girls and female colleagues at work. It is about empowering young girls to reach their full potential. It is about women being identified not by their gender, but by their intellect and abilities … curiosity, the ability to invent, the urge to improve and the ability to lead.”