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To shatter the ceiling: On women in STEM

It is 2016, and the gender disparity in STEM fields gapes pitifully. Industry giants often publish employee demographics on their company websites for the purpose of increasing diversity; examples include the Google Diversity site, which is an admirable effort by Google to shed light on and actively address lack of diversity in the workplace. The homepage displays one chart for employee gender data and another for ethnicity. The site further divides the statistics into percentages of each population in tech, non-tech and leadership positions. According to the global gender data, only 30 percent of Google’s employees are female. A slim 18 percent of the technical jobs and 22 percent of the leadership positions are held by women. Similarly alarming are the U.S. ethnicity data, which indicate that of the company’s overall employees, only two percent are African American, and three percent are Hispanic.

While the impetus to reduce this gap may be apparent to many, let us address why these gaps are undesirable. From the coldest of standpoints, it is vastly more beneficial for the success of a company to have a variety of perspectives on a project team, collaborating on anything from ideation to execution and problem solving. Diversity of thinking stems from diversity of experience. Broadening this frame of thought, the same principle applies to the progress of individual fields, and of human knowledge.

Furthermore, the paucity of females in STEM fields and positions of power is both a result of and a contributor to a culture of male superiority, and this takes the form of tangible losses for women in the workforce. What I consider to be most disconcerting is a widespread – albeit little acknowledged – tendency to regard male employees or job candidates as inherently more competent. A 2013 New York Times article by Eileen Pollack cites a study conducted by Yale researchers confirming that this bias is exhibited by both men and women. The study also highlights the connection between the undervaluation of a female worker’s skills and lower pay.

This insidious crack in our mindset can only be seen when we hold workplace culture to a light and view it from the angle of female workers. An interview with an anonymous Stanford woman in STEM indicates that the roots of gender bias are tangible even before the first job search.

“When girls are seen as more competent, [they are usually] less liked,” commented the student in reference to personal experiences in school and work before coming to Stanford. She also noted that, in her experience, young boys are often implicitly lauded by teachers and peers alike for allegedly superior aptitude in STEM fields; this underscores the point that the notion of female incompetence in such subjects takes hold quite early on in life.

Clearly, we are pressed by necessity to reexamine and reconstruct our behaviors and paradigms to ensure that we are not imposing a limiting environment on the success of minority populations, and, by extension, of our organizations and of humanity. While it may appear obvious, we are tasked with making sure that the efforts to level the playing field for disadvantaged populations are actually effective. Referring to certain introductory STEM programs geared toward high school girls, the anonymous student acknowledges the presence of noble intent but expresses concern that they exist “to show girls how cool computer science is … that’s the extent of it.” She feels that there is a need for clarifying “a constructive way” for women to navigate a field dominated by males, a means for “helping women succeed in the field and changing the workplace environment to make it easier for women to choose [such a] field.”

To confirm the efficacy of such programs, there must be proper channels of communication between companies and their minority-identifying employees, and these connections can yield the data necessary to determine the needs of workers disadvantaged by the growing, branching cracks in the collective mindset. Without efficient need-finding, there can be no effective solutions, and humankind falls prey to stagnation. If the cracks are deepening and something must break, let us preserve our potential for progress and shatter the glass ceiling in its stead.

 

 

Contact Alizeh Ahmad at alizeha@stanford.edu.

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