Across the globe, corporations, researchers, and national organizations are studying the reasons behind the declining number of degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The number of STEM graduates is declining across the board – especially for women earning computer science degrees – as shared most recently in Change the equation’ s “Half Empty: As Men Surge Back into Computing, Women Are Left Behind” report. While “jobs in computing have been a ray of light in a gloomy economy, women continue to lose ground at almost every degree level with the largest gap occurring at associate degree level where women earning associate degrees in computer science dropped from 44% in 2001 to a small 22 percent in 2012. This same general pattern holds for post-secondary certificates including Bachelor’s degrees, and Master’s degrees.”
It’s only natural to ask why, and even more so for technology leaders, like Intel, who rely on a highly-skilled technical workforce to create the next generation of innovations. We’ve found no shortage of data on detailing where the gaps are, or what is broken. What isn’t as readily available are ways to solve this challenge, close these huge gaps, and shift the needle in the right direction. If women represent 57% of college graduates and 50% of the world, it is certainly the right opportunity to embrace.
At Intel, with our partners, we see that the root causes behind losing women to STEM fields are challenging and complicated. Yet, rather than spinning on the declines, hanging on to notions that STEM graduates will become extinct, we’ve shifted our focus to finding and scaling bright spots, with the goal of deploying energy around the good programs and policies that are making a real impact.
We are proud sponsors of programs such as Girls who Code. Launched in spring 2012, Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering sectors. With support from public and private partners, Girls Who Code works to educate, inspire, and equip high school girls with the skills and resources to pursue opportunities in computing fields. Not only do the girls get to design cool projects like an LED umbrella that lights up when it rains, but they also get to be mentored by the best technologists in our company. Although Girls who Code is new, Intel’s involvement in encouraging underrepresented students to learn about coding is not as new. For example, we have supported MIT Media Labs and Mitch Resnick’s Scratch project for many years. With Scratch, you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community.
In our work we see a few bright spots, including:
Bright Spot #1 –Introducing kids to STEM in a fun and non-threatening way will hook them! At the core of it all, kids love to play and compete. By age 21, American kids will have put in more than 10K hours of video games. Why? They love to compete – and research highlights that kids will approach life’s challenges like a game. In addition to Girls Who Code, we have been partnering with NCWIT (National Center of Women and Information Technology) on programs that offer fun ways for girls to learn about STEM, including high school girls acting as peer mentors and introducing STEM to girls in middle school.
Bright Spot #2 – Changing perceptions and unpacking what computer scientists actually do by connecting girls with mentors who are doing computer science jobs today. Girls are motivated by projects they find personally relevant and meaningful. When girls find relevance and are able to see themselves in these jobs and understand how STEM roles can make a difference, they are much more interested. Intel has multiple programs on the ground connecting students directly with our employees, and employee volunteers spend countless hours inspiring girls about STEM professions. Having engineers that the students can immediately connect with or see themselves in the role models as a result of similar backgrounds can often reduce perceived fears.
Bright Spot #3. – Keep the focus across the entire pipeline; leakage can occur anywhere. We have learned across our programs that even if girls are ready to take on STEM degrees, we can still lose a large percentage of girls who drop out of computer science programs between year 1 and year 2 of pursuing undergraduate degrees. Intel has launched programs such as Stay With it Engineering and Undergraduate Research Opportunities (URO) where students are brought on site as interns, because we know students who are provided with research opportunities and real life work experiences have a higher probability of persisting in STEM careers.
To get women at critical mass in computer science, and move from red to green, will take sustained focus and require us to be real about what is at the root of the decline. Stating only that these careers are important will not be enough. We have to connect to the heart of the matter – and for girls, that’s connecting these roles to how they make a difference and why these roles really matter.