Women are sorely underrepresented in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. For many reasons, at early ages, girls internalize messages like these: math class is hard, I am not good at math, boys are better at math than girls. These limiting messages become self-fulfilling prophecies for many girls. As a result, in companies like
Facebook and LinkedIn, women make up only 5% and 17% respectively of the total employees working in tech jobs. Seeing the problem, these two companies are working together to encourage women’s interest in math and science fields through mentoring programs at colleges designed to get women studying technology and hopefully working at Facebook or LinkedIn some day.
Given the disproportionate representation of women in tech firms, it is not surprising that Facebook and LinkedIn execs, and others who run huge companies would favor affirmative actions plans for women regarding STEM jobs. Detractors would argue, however, that in no playing field are all teams absolutely even. After all, doesn’t each group seem to display different tendencies toward diverse strengths different from those displayed by other groups? A well known economist made the point that throughout history, there has been no group that is represented proportionately across every field. He provided the following examples.
- Though they make up less than three percent of the US population and 0.2 percent of the word’s population, Jews comprised 35 percent of American’s Nobel Prize winners and 22 percent of the world’s between 1901 and 2014.
- African-Americans make up 13 percent of America’s population but make up 80 percent of professional basketball players.
No company executives are complaining about how white people are underrepresented in professional basketball or how Jews dominate the Nobel Prize field. Instead, we have come to accept the reality that, again, in a level playing field, all groups will not be represented equally. So what does this all have to do with women and STEM? Are women staying out of these science-related fields because of their own attitudes drawn from their experiences in school or because of natural proclivities?
It might be instructive to look at two examples: one from Norway with its strong focus on equality and one from India which has very little such focus. Keep in mind that in Norway, laws dictated that women must make up a minimum 40 percent of public committees and corporate boards. You might guess that in Norway, women make up a large number of those in tech jobs relative to the U.S. You would be guessing wrong. A recent documentary probed this paradox and came to the following conclusion: those in poor nations such as India know that they must do what they can to make a living. Often, that means pursuing technological careers. Those in wealthy nations, however, have the utter luxury of choice, endless choice, of following their bliss. They need not make choices based on necessity as in the case of Indian workers.
In American, companies must contend with this question: how to bring women into technological fields. No matter your opinion, mentoring and affirmative action plans are two ways to ensure that more women will end up in STEM fields.