Gender Gap in STEM, CIO, Higher Ed

As I skimmed the headlines in an education technology newsletter a few weeks ago, I saw a mention of the 90/10 male-to-female ratio of participation in a particular MOOC. Ninety percent of the individuals that participated in a tracked MOOC were male. That’s quite a bit. Only 10% female. So I clicked on the article and, although I am hyper-aware that challenges exist in attracting females to participate in STEM programs, my awareness turned to a jaw-drop when I saw the next statistic.

More than 88% of computer science degrees are earned by males.

Flash-forward to today when the following headline reads ‘Fewer Female CIOs’ detailing a gradual 5% drop in representation over the past five years – http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/02/survey-finds-decline-number-female-chief-information-technology-officers

Am I this unique? I certainly don’t think so. These statistics surprise me and I wonder why the ratios exist, why female CIO leadership is declining and how we can work toward decreasing the gap between men/women in STEM-related degree programs, fields and overall leadership.

What is it that attracts males to STEM and, particularly, what is it that detracts females from STEM? Here is what I hope it’s not:

The archaic stance of girls thinking they can’t showcase their smarts in front of the boys.

Let’s face it, computer science isn’t easy. But neither is teaching, nursing and marketing. Why do college-age females find other majors more attractive than computer science?  STEM is screaming for female workers and leadership. How are college students not aware that when there are less of ‘anything’ in the candidate pool the chances of success are much greater when you possess that ‘anything’? I’ll admit it. I graduated with my B.A. in Communication.  Why? Because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And I communicate well, so there you go. I entered the corporate job market in a previously unheard of position titled ‘Corporate Concierge’ and, within short time, was pushed into a web developer role, provided training, and, eventually, offered a chance to pursue my Master’s degree. I thought about what direction I would take long and hard.  I did, in fact, do the math. There aren’t an abundance of females in leadership positions in technology. I am fascinated by succession planning. I realized that if I threw myself into computer science with wild abandon, it would likely pay off with dedication and hard work. I went up the ladder pretty quickly from developer to manager to director to associate vice president to chief information officer. There is a path – clearly defined – for strong technology leadership. And being a ‘girl’ doesn’t hurt.

On occasion the media rears its head about some ‘women in the workplace’ issue blaming females at work and stay-at-home dads or some combination thereof for all of society’s ills and the scientific impossibility of it all.

In a moment of weakness, I can see ‘going traditional’ and choosing a more stereotypical career path in order to not upset the apple cart, however let’s hope this doesn’t really happen. A career in technology is all-encompassing. You want to teach? Technical training and documentation will never be obsolete. You enjoy puzzles and figuring out how things tick? Programming. Pick a language, any language. They’re all useful and typically fairly redundant. Are you super-structured and organized? Database administration. You like to be uninterrupted while you figure out the most efficient way to find the best solution, oftentimes with repeated trial and error? Solutions architect. You like to map out the base layer, the infrastructure, the foundation? Networking. Most people aren’t aware of this, but not only is leadership made up of each and every one of those career paths, but it’s also easy and admirable to test the waters within another technology function. It’s called cross-training and collaboration and helps you teach and lead others. A career in technology never gets boring. Ever. And if start to believe the media frenzy that spews nonsense every now and again? Psssssst. You can oftentimes work from home. Problem solved.

I.T. is for nerds.

No! Well, OK maybe. But nerds are cool now. Maybe it’s the brains or maybe it is knowing that everything is moving in the direction of technology and our jobs will never cease to exist. As processes become more and more automated across all genres, there will always be a need for ‘techies’ to program, maintain, manage, schedule, prioritize, scale back, spin up, migrate, update…you get the picture.  The argument arises if everything is automated, we won’t need people to manage the processes. Wrong. 2020 is forecasting needs already in areas like big data and data crunching, computer engineering, management, energy, computer analysts, software engineers. Most boasting median incomes of 80-100k.

I am currently proud and fortunate to serve Fairfield University as their Chief Information Officer. I made the leap from corporate to higher education six years ago and have attested time and time again that I am now a higher ed lifer. Not only is technology ever-changing and improving, the campus environment with its mélange of faculty, staff and students keeps me on my toes. There was a time when I never considered my future involving technology in any way other than as an end-user. But after almost fifteen years working with technology I have an impossible time understanding why females don’t flock to STEM genres. The variety is unparalleled, then environment is energetic and always evolving, the money is more than competitive and the service offered is substantial. With the low ratio of females in STEM and specifically technology, the sky is the limit for opportunity. A career in technology for women is like STEM’s little hidden treasure.

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