“This is a national crisis,” says Nancy Ramsey. Ramsey, a futurist and co-author of “The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century,” is talking about the state of women in computer science. She sounds appalled. She has every right to be.
In 2005, Ramsey, along with a fellow researcher, released a report for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology that looked into gender imbalances in information technology. Six years later, she says, not much has changed, and the lack of women in the field is not only limiting the country’s creative and entrepreneurial output, it’s undermining the strength of our economy, and, by extension, our national security.
Anna Holmes is a contributing columnist for the Style section. She is the founder of Jezebel.com.
( Forever 21 / ) - Clothing retailer Forever 21 has caught backlash online for selling a shirt for ’tween girls that reads “Allergic to Algebra.”
The gender disparities in the United States’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce are troubling. According to a report released last month by the Department of Commerce, although females fill almost half of the jobs in the American economy, less than 25 percent of jobs in STEM fields are held by women. Even worse, female representation in the computer science and math sector — the largest of the four STEM components — has declined over the years, from 30 percent in 2000 to 27 in 2009.
Americans — and their elected officials — should take note. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of computer scientists is expected to grow a whopping 24 percent between 2008 and 2018, which the Bureau says is “much faster” than average for most occupations. Rebecca Blank, acting secretary at the Commerce Department, tells me that because of this increased need, the participation of more women will keep the industry, and the country, globally competitive in the long run.
These realities have significant implications for the economy on a more micro level: Women in traditionally well-paying STEM jobs, particularly computer science, enjoy more wage parity with men than in other occupations. Lack of female presence also has long-reaching cultural and social ramifications. Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher for the American Association of University Women and co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few?,” is blunt: “The growth of technology is driven by the people who are designing it. Without women at the design table, the interests of half the population will basically be ignored.” Adds Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology: “We don’t know what women would invent because by and large right now, they are not.”
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It starts young. Although girls have achieved meaningful parity with boys in test scores and college degrees in math and science, they are also being sent a message that embracing these subjects is anathema to what it means to be female. (Mainstream Hollywood movies about technology innovation that relegate females to sexualized-accessory status don’t help matters. Neither do sexist comments from Ivy League university presidents or pink T-shirts for ’tweens with phrases such as “Allergic to Algebra.”)
“We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’ ” says Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher and author of the June 2011 paper Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity With Gender Identity. “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”