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Closing the STEM Gender Gap January 26, 2024

by Jeanne Zepp

Johns Hopkins Magazine carried an interesting “Forefront” piece addressing equity and inclusion in its Winter 2023 edition. It described the efforts of R-Ladies Baltimore, a chapter of R-Ladies Global. “R” refers to an open source software, primarily used by statisticians, for analyzing and visualizing vast amounts of data. The programming language, while elegant, was not the focus of this piece. Rather, the thrust was teaching chapter members – mainly women but minorities, too – the skills needed to master R and increase diversity in the field.

The article presented some rather startling gender statistics. Women comprise a mere 28 percent of the global STEM workforce. This number is shocking on its face but even more so when the piece conveys that “… the gender gap is widest in the math-intensive fields like engineering, computer science, data science, and artificial intelligence.” It gets worse. “In the U.S., for instance, women account for only 20 percent of computer science majors, despite representing roughly 60 percent of undergraduates nationwide.”

“… [T]he gender gap is widest in the math-intensive fields like engineering, computer science, data science, and artificial intelligence.”

Referenced causal factors involve explanations we’ve all heard before: boys are thought to be better at math, so girls shy away from it; STEM classroom situations are intimidating for girls and women; and a phenomenon the article calls “impostor syndrome,” a feeling of not belonging in STEM because their background doesn’t include comparable experience in programming and playing video games as males.

There are other gender-related statistics beyond those cited in this article. Ernst & Young reported that, as of 2019, female founders represented just 20 percent of global startups raising funding. Fortune reports that only 10.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies had women CEOs as of 2023, while Deloitte finds that in 2022 women held just over 30 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. While not minimizing the progress these statistics reflect, there certainly is room for improvement.

So, what are the best options to increase gender diversity? As the R-Ladies example illustrates, forums that offer non-threatening opportunities for mentoring and role modeling make a big difference. Locally, Falls Church, Virginia‒based Women in Technology is addressing the problem on many program fronts: Accelerate(her), which offers career-enrichment activities; Girls in Technology, which offers experiences in technology for students in grades 6-12; Mentor-Protégé, which couples young female professionals with mentors to assist their career advancement; and The Leadership Foundry program, which prepares women to assume positions on corporate boards. A simple Google search reveals numerous other programs.

Forums that offer non-threatening opportunities for mentoring and role modeling make a big difference.

Our own CEO, Sarbari Gupta, recently opined on the topic in a soon-to-be-published article “The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder” for Authority Magazine. Beyond greater mentoring and role modeling, her recommendations included incentivizing employers to offer women more workplace opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills entrepreneurship demands; alleviating childcare concerns through federal and local legislative action; and increasing visibility of woman-focused programs such as those offered by the Small Business Administration and other private and public entities.

At Electrosoft we are proud that women represent almost 41 percent of our workforce and that over 43 percent of our female employees report holding STEM degrees. In late 2022, Dr. Gupta started a mentoring initiative where she works with women managers and leaders within the company on a one-on-one basis via scheduled monthly meetings. There, she solicits input on the challenges they face in their leadership roles; she then provides ideas and suggestions for their consideration. In addition, Dr. Gupta never hesitates to assist friends, neighbors, and employees with aspirations to found their own businesses.

There are numerous qualified women bypassing opportunities in STEM fields based on unfounded myths, fear of failure, lack of a role model, low self-confidence, or life challenges. The loser in this scenario is not just the women in question but society as a whole. It’s a terrible prospect to envision when, as the Hopkins piece concludes, “It’s just a matter of setting up the culture to make it happen.”

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