Coding Among STEM Careers Women Overlook

Posted By Terri Williams on July 18, 2017 at 7:54 am
Coding Among STEM Careers Women Overlook

While women earn 57.3% of undergraduate college degrees, they receive less than 20% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science. This is problematic for several reasons. Women tend to pursue degrees that lead to lower-paying jobs – which is one of the contributing factors in the gender pay gap. But certain STEM careers provide a respite from gender inequalities.

Computer science, for example, is one field in which women earn more than men. It also is a field that is experiencing tremendous job growth. So why aren’t more women choosing this career path?

A lack of women in computer science

Kristi Riordan, COO at the coding academy Flatiron School, tells GoodCall® that a passion for technology can be developed as early as adolescence. “The familiarity gained from early computer exposure creates a perception of natural aptitude versus aptitude gained from experience and practice.”

Women were computing as early as the 1940s, and movies such as Hidden Figures highlight the involvement of black women computing at NASA during the 1960s. “In the 1980s, computers and video games were branded toward boys, which is when we began seeing the marked decline in female participation in computer science degrees,” Riordan explains, noting that women received 37% of computer science degrees in 1984, but only 18% in 2014.

She says the few women who do enter a computer science program tend to drop out. But, why? “Ranks in engineering teams became heavily concentrated in men, culture became increasing male dominated and unwelcoming to women, further causing women to drop out of the field once they arrived,” Riordan says. “And male-dominated cultures established hiring practices that women did not break through or didn’t want to break through.”

To rebalance the industry, she says there are systemic issues that must be addressed.

STEM careers overlooked by female students

It’s important to understand what attracts women to technical fields. “A study conducted by Google in 2014 found that women are drawn to technical careers based on their ‘familiarity with, and perception of, computer science as a career with diverse applications and a broad potential for positive societal impact,’” Riordan says.

Women tend to be inspired when they are exposed to role models in a technical field or they see how technical skills are applied to solve problems or achieve goals. “Take Ashley Blewer, who became interested in technology at the age of 8 but dropped out of CS her first year of college because the ‘sea of white male faces reinforced the idea that this was not a space for [her],’ so she pursued a career as an archivist in a university library, which involved many rote activities in cataloguing metadata,” Riordan says.

However, while working at the library, Blewer decided that using an algorithm could help her catalog at a more efficient pace. “Following through on that instinct, she learned to code and is now equipped to make a much bigger impact as an applications developer at the New York Public Library.”

Riordan also provides another example. “Victoria Friedman studied English as an undergrad and spent her first two years after college in the publishing industry – an environment she found to be far less collaborative than she had envisioned.” However, her brother, who was a software engineer, thought she could advance her career by learning web design.

Since Friedman didn’t do well in either math or science and felt she didn’t fit the stereotype of a programmer, she initially didn’t think it was a good idea. But she came to appreciate the creativity involved in coding. “Since launching her new career, Victoria has contributed as a software engineer at Time and today works for New York Magazine,” Riordan says.

Coding can have a variety of applications in practically any area, but Riordan says women have to envision themselves applying coding skills and embrace STEM careers. “When women realize that learning to code can open doors for them to virtually any field, they are far more likely to consider it as a potential career path filled with as much purpose as future promise.”

And, women coders can earn a lucrative salary. According to Riordan, Flatiron School’s female graduates earn slightly more than male grads ($74,957 vs. $74,447).

How Flatiron is trying to increase women in computer science

While computer science programs at traditional four-year colleges are not reaching many women, Flatiron School is one example of a successful alternative model. “With female enrollment in our classes ranging from 35% to 65%, we’ve worked diligently to decrease the gender gap by increasing women’s awareness of, access to, and confidence in their ability to succeed in a computer science education.”

Flatiron has created a range of initiatives to provide encouragement and inspiration. “We’ve developed partnerships ranging from supermodel Karlie Kloss to Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp to increase women’s awareness of their career opportunities from learning highly in-demand skills such as coding.”

And, to make the learning more affordable, Flatiron, which was founded in 2012, has awarded more than $1 million in scholarships. The school has a New York City campus but also offers courses online. “Through our Women Take Tech Scholarship with Bustle, Flatiron School reshaped our online student body from 35% women to nearly 50%,” Riordan explains.

Cost is a significant factor when pursuing higher education options that lead to STEM careers. Recent research reveals that women have more student loan debt, and it takes them longer to repay it – in part, as a result of the gender pay gap.

Also, evidence shows women doubt themselves and lose their confidence more often than men. In fact, Calculus I stops women from pursuing STEM careers, as they begin to doubt their abilities if they don’t make an “A” or “B,” although men are undeterred by their low grades.

To achieve the goal of attracting more women to consider software engineering, Riordan says they must be shown a path to meaningful STEM careers with stable income. “Women need to be supported and challenged in their confidence, and programs must be designed with the modern student in mind,” Riordan concludes.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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