It’s International Women’s Day. Yes, we get one day a year to celebrate our ladyhood. Or something like that.
I used to snicker at meetings, classes and events focused on Women in Technology (WIT). The thought of sitting around in a room full of women complaining about how hard it is to work in a man’s world did not appeal to me. To think of rallying around a cause for pay equity drove me crazy because I had never met a woman who had ever asked for a raise. I still have met only 2 who have told me they have done this. I thought that WIT issues were only about man-hating and failing to ask for what we deserved. Then an amazing thing happened. I was asked to serve as a national spokesperson for the CIPS Women in Technology program. I really didn’t want to do it, but agreed because I wanted to help.
Why was it amazing? Because I found out that most WIT initiatives aren’t about male-bashing and waiting for someone to make our lives better. One specific cause that made me "get it" was the fact that girls who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) don’t pursue studies in these areas because we, society, are constantly throwing obstacles in front of them. That got me going. I had experienced the same things:
- A high school guidance counsellor who told me that I did not want to pursue a career in a man’s field. That I would be lonely amongst all those guys and never feel at home. Wow. Was she wrong.
- A series of really terrible math teachers. And by terrible, I mean a couple who were very vocal about a female’s inability to succeed at math…high school math. Teachers who were also coaches who really didn’t want girls in their classes.
- Family members who didn’t really want me to study science. My grandmother told me it would be better to marry an engineer than to be one. So I did both.
- Messages from all around me that pretty was better than smart. That pink is the only colour for girls. That boys do fun things and girls take care of them.
So in my time as WIT spokesperson, I was able to see that we have a huge problem in society that the majority of the population is being discouraged from studying STEM and pursuing STEM-related careers. Sure, no one should be forced into these careers, but it makes me mad to see smart, highly-capable girls being steered away from professionally and financially rewarding jobs.
Recently the Girl Scout Research Institute released a report, Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In the executive summary, they outline their findings:
These findings, we believe, will lead to more comprehensive solutions to the underrepresentation of women in the STEM
workforce. We found that:
- Seventy-four percent of high school girls across the country are interested in the fields and subjects of STEM.
- Girls are interested in the process of learning, asking questions, and problem solving.
- Girls want to help people and make a difference in the world.
- Girls who are interested in STEM are high achievers who have supportive adult networks and are exposed to STEM fields.
- Girls who are interested in STEM fields are actually interested in many subjects and career opportunities—STEM is just one area of interest among many.
- Perceived gender barriers are still high for girls and may help explain why STEM fields aren’t their top career choices.
- African American and Hispanic girls have high interest in STEM, high confidence, and a strong work ethic, but have fewer supports, less exposure, and lower academic achievement than Caucasian girls.
This research can help to change the discussion on girls and STEM by offering a much needed
strength-based perspective focusing on what contexts are most supportive for girls. We hope
this research helps to take the conversation to the next level by focusing on how to use girls’
interests to cultivate career plans for them in STEM fields.
So girls do have an interest in the subject, they do want to work in these fields, but something stops them. That’s what I talk about on WIT panels. The number one question I get from people opposed to WIT programs is "why should we force girls into something they aren’t interested in" The answer: we shouldn’t. But research like the GSRI report shows that many girls who say they aren’t interested don’t have a clear image of what our careers are like. Others have an interest, but don’t believe they can or don’t believe they should. This is a huge problem for the IT industry and for the economy. More than half of our workforce is female, but things are getting in the way of them preparing for, entering and staying in the IT field. I want to motivate those of us in the IT profession to actively do something to remove these obstacles, one misconception at a time.
You Can Help
You have the power to do that. Talk to the young women in your family. Tell them how great it is that you still have a job and your company is still trying to fill open positions. Tell them about work you do that is making a difference in other people’s lives. Talk to their parents about how important it is that they ensure their girls have a great math teacher or tutor. Ask your local user group, DAMA Chapter or SQLSaturday why they didn’t have a WIT panel. Volunteer to be on a WIT panel — yes, even you men. If your local user group doesn’t allow men on the WIT panels or events, ask them why they think this is only a female issue. Start people talking about why they think WIT is an issue or not. Then share the facts with them. Volunteer to speak at your schools. Take a girl to a museum. Let your daughter shop in the "boys" toy aisle, too. Speak out when someone says that giving girls career options is forcing them to be less female. Talk to people about this post. Leave a comment. Share it. Get people thinking about the WIT issue as a problem for all of us.
You can make a difference. One person at a time. Do it.
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