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Women in STEM

Community Solutions to Building STEM Pipeline and Retention

Katie SanFilippo

CEO, ChickTech

The lack of diverse representation in the tech industry across gender, race, and ethnicity is nothing new. Despite continued initiatives around women in tech, there has been little shift in an equitable industry. The representation of women in the industry peaked in the mid-1980s, when 37 percent of computer science majors were women. Today, the numbers have slipped to merely 18 percent. Despite numerous initiatives led by community-based organizations, companies, and industry leaders to combat the diversity problem in tech, the headway produced over the last decade has not created an equal playing field for women to enter into — and stay — in tech.

So often, I see that individuals and companies are truly eager to reach a future where all are welcome and represented in the tech industry. But even with these various efforts and millions of dollars dedicated to advancing equality and equity within the industry, why do we still hear stories from women and see studies confirming that the status quo has not shifted?

From years of hearing from technical women and companies looking to move the needle on equity and diversity, I believe ChickTech provides a crucial answer to the question of how this work is done. We believe the issue remains two-fold: filling the pipeline through tech-based education into careers and improving retention of women throughout their careers.

The pipeline problem

The belief that women are naturally less inclined than men to work in technology jobs is, unfortunately, still a myth perpetuated in recent years, regardless of the numerous studies debunking this harmful claim. In fact, studies show that when supported with great mentors and accessible STEM programs, girls’ interest in math and science actually increases.

When such programs and mentors are not available, however, the status quo continues. Today, girls start losing interest in STEM starting in middle school, and their interest plummets further over time. The good news is that whether girls’ interest drops due to lack of relatable role models or having little or no access to high quality tech education programs, there are solutions we can harness.

Removing barriers to accessing programs that foster girls’ interests in tech at a young age is crucial. A variety of access barriers must be addressed in tandem: addressing structural disruptions, providing free or low-cost options, and using project-based instruction, for example. Providing female mentors and role models in the industry are equally essential in showing young girls that STEM is for them. Bringing diverse female mentors into the classroom and during STEM education does wonders to combat the harmful stereotype that STEM is for (white) boys.

Keeping and advancing women in STEM

Retaining women in tech at risk of exiting the industry is the other large problem we need to target. Over 50 percent of women in tech are leaving their employers mid-career, at a time when they would be more likely to advance to the next leadership level.

Toxic male-dominated cultures, lack of advancement and professional development opportunities, and company policies that do not support the specific needs of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people of color all contribute to a turnover rate that is more than twice as high for women as it is for men in tech.

While companies should (and some do!) take steps to foster retention and implement intentional practices to help women advance into leadership roles, progress doesn’t stop there.

Success in tech careers is not driven solely by technical skill. Opportunities to develop “career-adjacent” skills like salary negotiation, networking, leadership, and mentoring programs drive employee satisfaction and help retain all employees over the long term, not just women. Building and joining communities committed to advancing women in tech, including supporting company affinity groups; partnering with women-serving organizations such as ChickTech, Women Who Code, or Black Girls Code; or, hosting local networking groups helps to uplift and empower everyone in the tech community.

But what can I do?

While companies, schools, and governments have an obligation to do their fair share in making technology more accessible and inclusive to women, individuals also have a part to play.

Every (tech) professional can contribute by giving back to younger generations through mentorship, speaking at youth events about their pathways, or leading workshops. These help to build a pipeline of girls that become excited about the endless possibilities in technology. Getting involved directly supports these students and builds personal satisfaction and motivation to advance equitable practices and personal job development.

When we all continue this work together to uplift and connect across generations, income level, race, and ethnicity, we will begin to shift the needle and ensure technology is created for all by all.

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