Working in information technology, we are often reminded of the disparities in diversity across the field. With low numbers of women occupying IT and computer science roles, the lack of representation fosters a bias that women don’t have the technical skills to fulfill these roles, making it difficult for young women to see themselves fitting into the field.
This bias begins at an early age, with minimal exposure to careers in tech countered by a push toward roles in English, history and the arts. This accounts for fewer than 30% of women pursuing higher education to study subjects like engineering.
A lack of access and exposure to technology is also responsible for low representation among people of color. And with expensive youth programs, growing tuition rates and generally high costs of technology equipment, people from lower-income households or communities can struggle to find a way to sharpen their skills and education in STEM subjects.
With so many obstacles stacked against women and people of color from a young age, the lack of representation further withholds them from pursuing jobs in STEM. However, by seeing a family member, friend, or acquaintance who is also a woman or person of color occupying a role in the tech space, young people can see that these opportunities are available to them.
As tech organizations continue to battle the skills gap, a lack of diversity also contributes to the skills shortage, costing organizations both talent and dollars. As organizations in STEM work toward creating inclusive work spaces, they must remember to provide support and access to resources, as well as display representation to marginalized groups in and out of the office.
Encouragement begins at a young age, but it must be carried throughout careers to ensure retention and continue to increase the number of women and people of color in STEM.
Here are four ways organizations can encourage representation and welcome more women and people of color in engineering and other STEM fields.
Start with Youth Programs
Camps and programs dedicated to robotics, software development and other IT skills are increasing in popularity, but the costs associated with these programs are often out of reach for low-income families.
TechGirlz offers TechShopz in a Box™ with free workshop plans, documents, and guides based on topics ranging from coding to creating games to designing mobile apps. These workshops can be conducted virtually, making it easy for anyone, anywhere, to run a free, hands-on workshop for middle school girls.
If your organization doesn’t offer dedicated youth programs, fundraising or setting aside scholarship money can provide access to critical knowledge for those in need and will let young people know their interests in computers, robotics and video games can translate from hobbies into careers.
By supporting such initiatives, you’re opening up access to the world for women and people of color. Programs and competitive groups can provide them with the opportunities to compete and travel nationally and abroad, open access to career opportunities, and invite them into spaces that are more inclusive.
Encourage Networking Opportunities
With an increase in conferences, awards ceremonies and events highlighting women in tech, there are several opportunities for employees to find spaces that understand and acknowledge the problems women and people of color face while providing outlets to overcome those issues with valuable resources.
Belonging to groups like the Society of Women Engineers encourages women by surrounding them with other successful women. Groups like the National Society of Black Engineers support diversity and inclusion in STEM and encourage collaboration among professionals in the industry. WITS (Women In Tech Summit), the only technical conference with all women speakers, educates and connects women working in and with technology.
Internally, organizations should foster a collaborative working environment that allows employees from different departments to connect with each other and encourage conversations in which employees can learn about different roles that might fit their interests. A positive work culture can also provide employees in entry level positions the opportunity to network with women and people of color in various roles across the company, thus widening their social circles and creating natural mentorships.
Embrace Allies and Mentorships
Since men make up the majority of leadership positions in STEM, it is important for them to advocate for the advancement of women and people of color.
Organizations should encourage male allyship and fill their boards with more women and diverse candidates who will uphold and encourage the success of the underrepresented while actively demonstrating that people from all walks of life are welcome.
Until more women and people of color are represented in these positions, male allies in leadership roles can also serve as mentors for women looking to advance in their careers. For women seeking advice from other women, they should look to their peers who will be able to closely relate to their struggles. Once women are in senior roles, they should consider mentoring new hires and college students to provide guidance and connections in the field.
Amplify Marginalized Voices
Organizations perform better when women are at the table making decisions at all levels of the company, and most importantly at the executive level. Women have unique voices and under-represented perspectives. Their experiences and those of other minority groups contribute to creativity and inclusivity across the field. Their perspectives can also encourage more accurate data and prevent biases.
Traditional values that have kept women at home and have prevented them from speaking up have found their way into workspaces, creating further unintentional bias. To combat those outdated ideas, amplify the voices of women and people of color on your teams by supporting their ideas and initiatives. Give them a chance to speak and actively listen to what they have to say. This will carve out spaces for them to flourish.
Reaching equality in STEM begins by showing women and people of color that they belong in this world from a young age. When organizations advocate for more diverse leadership, they promote a culture of acceptance. As organizations understand the value in representation and work with women and people of color from early education through their careers, fields like technology will only benefit from the diversity of their workforce.
Andrea Roberson is a product manager at Centrify Corporation, where she directs the product roadmap for Centrify Privileged Access Service. She was previously a technical support engineer at the company for almost two years, and has held several engineering and support roles during her career including at Google and Apple. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from Spelman College, where she was a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Association for Computing Machinery, and SpelBots.