More women than ever before are earning STEM degrees. But when broken down by degree type, it’s clear that women are only mass migrating to a handful of disciplines. While women have already caught up to men in biology and the social sciences, they only earn 18.7 percent of the computer science degrees awarded in the United States.
In terms of sheer numbers, there are more women pursuing tech degrees and careers than there were a decade ago, in large part due to increased awareness and a multitude of initiatives led by nonprofit organizations and universities to encourage women to enter tech and other STEM fields.
But women aren’t migrating to tech fast enough. Despite an increase in the number of female workers, the share of tech-related bachelor’s degrees awarded to women has shrunk over the past 20 years.
On their own, bachelor’s degrees are not a perfect indicator of the number of women interested in tech or in the pipeline to receive tech jobs, as many of the nation’s top companies only require their computer scientists to have certificates, which can be earned by taking online courses.
However, the fact that women’s share of computer science degrees is regressing is not a good sign. It indicates they’re being outpaced by men.
In order to reverse this trend and successfully increase the number of women in tech, experts must first determine what it is that inspires women to pursue tech in the first place and what makes them choose to stay.
And that’s exactly what researchers from the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) Foundation set out to do. They interviewed groups of middle school girls attending STEM camps, surveyed female university students studying tech, and acquired responses from professional women already working technology roles to find out what first attracts girls and women to tech, what challenges them and what retains them.
The researchers hope that what they have found will be used by parents, teachers, tech executives and HR leaders as a tool to speed up and maintain the migration of women into tech careers.
“This study revealed fresh data on what motivates girls and women to choose technology over other fields, which in turn provides insights for the teachers and role models in their lives to show how this field matches those interests and desires,” Chris Rydzewski, MCWT executive director, said in a news release.
What inspires women to pursue tech from a young age,?
Family involvement plays a key role.
“A high proportion of (middle school girls) and over half of university students indicate that they have a family member in the field,” the researchers wrote in a paper describing their study. “Having this influence is cited by many as having sparked their interest in the field. Many recount time spent together, especially with parents, learning how to engineer, code and use computers as their first memory of interest.”
Clearly, not every little girl will be born to parents who are versed in tech, so the researchers suggest that parents with valuable experience should consider sharing it not only with their own children, but also with other children, through avenues like school programs.
Educating girls at a young age also ignites their interest in tech, the researchers found.
“Both (middle school girls) and university students cite computer educators and classes as igniting their interest,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “For girls and young women with a love for problem-solving and creating, early exposure appears to be meaningful and leads to more in-depth activities like robotics teams and camps as students grow older in a desire to learn more. Over half of university students cite a computer class teacher as very influential.”
But having a childhood interest in tech and deciding to make it a career are two very different things. When asked as to what motivated them to pursue a tech degree, 33 percent of the female university students said they were drawn to the field because they see tech as an opportunity to help others. Other answers cite a desire to “be creative” (22 percent), “innovate” (19 percent), “constantly learn” (14 percent) and “solve problems” (10 percent).
The women who are already working in tech said they chose it over other careers because they saw it as a path for security and personal fulfillment.
“Many see the field as a growing one with good career prospects and stable demand for talent,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “We also hear from written responses how they believe that this career path will provide them with satisfaction and a sense of personal accomplishment. In essence, it is a path they will enjoy and will afford them a secure and comfortable lifestyle.”
Professional women also cite opportunities to grow as a main reason for pursuing tech. They said tech careers give them the opportunity to lead and receive new challenges. These growth opportunities keep them engaged and motivated throughout their careers.
What are some of the main challenges women face that may keep them from pursuing tech?
The female university students expressed a lack of female representation as one of their primary concerns, along with a lack of confidence.
Echoing the students’ concerns, the professionals list lack of female representation and gender bias as the main challenges facing young women interested in tech.
What can employers do to recruit more women into tech?
According to the professional women, the two top ways for employers to attract and retain more women into tech is to offer employees flexible hours and highlight women in leadership roles so they are visible to young women with an interest in the subject.
“University students express concerns about the lack of representation in the field, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously and their own lack of confidence,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Relatable role models can help ease these concerns and inspire confidence in choices yet to be made and reinforce those choices of those who have selected the field for study.”
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.