Women are still ‘Hidden Figures’ in many STEM careers

At first glance, award-winning film Hidden Figures seems like your typical Oscar-nominated movie: great plot, superb actors, eye-catching visuals, and an inspiring story. But there’s more that meets the eye.

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures chronicles the lives of three women working at NASA in the 1960s during the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The struggles they faced, both as women and as people of colour, in the male-dominated industries of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (STEM), is something that continues to this day.

Globally, women account for less than a third (28.4 per cent) of those employed in scientific research and development, according to a report published in November 2015 by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics. They are also more likely to leave their roles in STEM fields, with a majority of women citing isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments and a lack of effective sponsors as the reasons behind their decision, says a Harvard Business Review research report.

In Canada specifically, while women represent the majority of university graduates (59 per cent in 2011), they are still underrepresented and less likely to choose a career in STEM fields. Statistics Canada reported at the end of 2015 that women accounted for just 39 per cent of university graduates aged 25 to 34 with a STEM degree, compared to 66 per cent of graduates in non-STEM programs.

The majority of those female STEM graduates were concentrated in science and technology programs (59 per cent), but only accounted for 23 per cent of those who graduated from engineering programs and 30 per cent of mathematics and computer science programs.

However, the women currently in STEM fields are working hard to change this.

Keep the discussion going

The best way to encourage more women to go into STEM industries is to keep drawing attention to it, says Margaret Dawson, global product marketing manager at Red Hat Inc., a U.S.-based open-source enterprise software company.

“People often say we’re talking too much about this topic, but I completely disagree,” she tells IT World Canada. “Yes, women have made amazing advancements and I’m so incredibly proud at how far we’ve come, but look at the statistics; things have not changed all that much. Until the disconnect between women and STEM is bridged, we still have more work to do.”

Expanding on this is Norrie Davidson, CEO of Third Octet Inc., a Toronto area-based technology solutions provider.

“Visibility is the best way to encourage people and specifically women, to go into the STEM field,” she states.

Davidson points to movies like Hidden Figures as a great start to raising more awareness, but adds that more mediums need to be used.

“There needs to be more discussion on social media about the lack of women in STEM. People should be tweeting about this, making videos on YouTube about it, posting on Facebook, the works,” she says. “And not only should we be talking about it, we should also be showcasing what working in these fields is like, what can be accomplished, and even how much money can be made, to entice women and show them what kind of an impact they can have.”

But why is this important? According to Statistics Canada, having more women in STEM programs and jobs can be directly linked “to a country’s competitiveness and economic prosperity.”

“STEM graduates are considered key inputs of the national innovation system,” the Canadian agency says. “At the individual level, previous reports have also suggested that a STEM degree would lead to better labour market conditions and higher earnings, especially for those with a background in engineering and computer science.”

Affirmative action

Within the STEM field itself, Dawson believes there needs to be improvement made to the hiring process. She says that, while controversial to many people, the intentional hiring of women is one answer to increasing numbers that makes sense.

“I get a lot of negative feedback for this opinion because it sounds very biased and unfair, but I don’t mean it in the sense that a company should hire a woman over a man when the woman is less qualified. I’m talking about when there’s a job opportunity and both the men and women who applied have the same experience and qualifications and it comes down to a proverbial coin toss,” she explains.

“Diversity is important – and not just gendered diversity, I’m also talking about different backgrounds, religion, skin colour, everything – and in business, having a diverse set of employees, executives and board members with different life experiences and opinions, generally makes a company stronger.”

Luc Villeneuve, general manager at Red Hat Canada, has been a champion of women in STEM throughout his 30-year career in the tech industry and often goes out of his way to seek out women candidates for job opportunities.

“When I interview people for jobs, the pool of candidates on the female side is usually so small, I extend the application deadline or get in touch with people in my network to see if they have any women they think would be a good fit for the position,” he says. “It doesn’t mean they’ll be the best or that I’ll offer them the job, but I do believe it’s important to at least begin the hiring process with a variety of options and offer equal opportunity.”

But Villeneuve doesn’t just talk the talk. He tells IT World Canada that he’s actually replaced himself three times in three different executive roles with women he knew were better qualified and would do a better job than him. And just three years ago, Red Hat did not have a single female account manager, but under Villeneuve’s leadership, women now make up 25 per cent of the company’s account managers. While he is adamant he won’t be satisfied until that number is at 50 per cent, he admits that he’s happy with how far the company has come in such a short amount of time.

“It’s about leading by example. There are a lot of people that say the right things, but it’s their behaviour and actions that really count.”

Paving the way for future generations

Beyond hiring, the industry needs to do a better job of reaching young women both still in school and those just beginning their careers in STEM, Third Octet’s Davidson says.

“We all, both males and females, need to step up to the plate and provide more leadership and mentorship to the younger generation coming through. Having role models and a support system of people that believe you can do something is incredibly valuable,” she points out.

Another company walking the walk is IBM Corp., which played a role in Hidden Figures (and in the wider world) through its IBM 7090 electronic computer and Fortran programming language. The company partners with Girls Who Code and Ladies Who Code, non-profit organizations dedicated to reducing the gender gap in the technology industry, to run camps and programs aimed at engaging girls and young women in the STEM field.

IBM also has an internal mentor program that allows its personnel to learn skills from other employees.

“IBM does some great things in terms of education: in addition to the coding camps we run, we also bring in kids between grades six and nine to talk about technology and expose them to activities they’d be doing if they ended up in STEM,” Victoria Odeyemi, a software engineer at IBM, tells IT World Canada. “And at the university level, we have open houses, class demonstrations and guest speakers.”

However, Odeyemi points out that when talking about attracting women to STEM jobs, there’s no right age.

“It’s never too late and we need to keep coming up with ways to target women of all age groups and show how they can enter STEM professions,” she stresses. “Even when women want to change careers at the age of 30, we need to include them in this discussion. We need to focus on young people, but also not forget about the older ones. Many people going into school are not sure of what they want to do, so this would be the time to reach out to women of all ages.”

Changing mentalities

Starting early with education is key, but so is changing existing mentalities, according to Cathy Vankesteren, senior vice president of End to End Networks Inc., a data, network and security infrastructure provider and technology advisor based in the Toronto region.

Men are good at promoting themselves, but women tend to lack in this area and it hurts their ability to find and obtain jobs, she explains. Vankesteren points to a recent job day End to End networks held in conjunction with George Brown College in Toronto, which gave a selected eight students the opportunity to see how the company worked, as well as participate in presentations, labs and technical tests, for a potential chance at an internship. One of the two chosen women participants was technically strong and gave an excellent presentation about smart cities, Vankesteren says, but failed to introduce herself.

“This one girl was clearly very intelligent and experienced, but she didn’t introduce herself in the beginning and more importantly, we had to probe her to offer up any personal information; we had to pull it out of her,” Vankesteren says. “At any potential internship or job interview, selling yourself is very important and this experience made me realize that we as an industry are not doing enough to build the confidence and educate these young women in terms of the skills they need to get new jobs and promotions.”

She is convinced that starting early in schools and teaching such skills would have dramatic effects on the number of women in STEM going forward, a statement echoed by Red Hat’s Villeneuve.

“My passion for advancing women started early on growing up with great role models like my grandmother, mother and two sisters, and I believe we need to start instilling these values in men as early as possible,” he says. “If male leaders already in the industry don’t see how important women participation in STEM is or women leadership is in general, it’s probably too late. We need to train men on how important diversity is as early as possible, not after 30 years in the business, and hopefully that will kickstart a trend that can continue to build over time.”

But Fariba Anderson, CEO at AcuteNet Inc., a software solutions provider in the Toronto area, says that changing perspectives is just as important.

“Us women need to start looking at our situations from a glass half full perspective. There’s the perception that we haven’t achieved enough, and while there are still things holding us back, that’s sort of a conceded attitude,” Anderson says. “We focus more on what we don’t have instead of what we do have, and that conversation needs to change.”

She says celebrating what has already been achieved, as well as advocating and supporting other women are two positive things that can be encouraging for the next generation. Anderson uses Verity, a Toronto-based women-only club, as an example of women promoting women.

“Verity is a centre for women of all walks of life to come together and discuss their experiences, network with others and just generally, advance women and women leadership. But we hear so many excuses about how women don’t have time to join, or it’s too far for them or its too expensive, but they have time to say we’re not advancing? There’s an irony in there that I’m not sure if I’m conveying,” Anderson explains. “We need to promote ourselves better, network better, support each other better, and places like this are a great place to start.”

A not so lonely path to the top

While advancing women in STEM obviously starts with women, Anderson continues to say that it’s not a job they can or should do alone.

“Women need to challenge men leaders, whether in big or small companies, to make a statement about gender diversity. We need to take ownership over our own advancement, but we also need help,” she says. “I’m a huge proponent for featuring people like Luc [Villeneuve] because we need men like him on our side, and we need collaboration from the whole team to make a difference.”

Third Octet’s Davidson also mentions something similar while talking with IT World Canada. She believes opening up and including men, or at least the ones who want to be involved, is the key to success.

“Sometimes as women, we create this sense of isolation, like it’s us against the world, but it doesn’t have to be that way. So many men are looking over at us wanting to know what’s going on and wanting to help in any way they can,” Davidson says.

“Just as we need to find opportunities to communicate with younger women, we need to find opportunities to communicate with men and get them involved so they can understand what we’re dealing with and what we want.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Mandy Kovacs
Mandy Kovacshttp://www.itwc.ca
Mandy is a lineup editor at CTV News. A former staffer at IT World Canada, she's now contributing as a part-time podcast host on Hashtag Trending. She is a Carleton University journalism graduate with extensive experience in the B2B market. When not writing about tech, you can find her active on Twitter following political news and sports, and preparing for her future as a cat lady.

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