How Employers Guide Women of Color into STEM

Although research shows they love math and science, girls of color aren’t making it into the STEM fields. The tech industry is trying to change that.

By Damon Brown

By Damon Brown February 26, 2021

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics make the world go round. If you look closely, however, there’s something really important missing from the STEM fields: women. In particular, women of color.

Indeed, women and people of color make up just 28% and 11%, respectively, of the science and engineering workforce, according to a 2018 report from the National Science Foundation. That means women of color represent a fraction of a fraction of the STEM workforce – a fact confirmed by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which says black and Hispanic women make up just 3% and 1%, respectively, of the tech workforce.

Those statistics aren’t just troubling for women of color who aspire to STEM careers. They’re also troubling for the tech companies who want to build a diverse workforce, according to Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made gender equality a major priority since its inception in 2000.

“Everyone suffers when a woman or a minority who is a woman does not have a seat at the table,” Gates told the Orlando Business Journal in a 2017 interview. 

“Without them, we are failing to leverage the full force of our collective brainpower. We’re missing out on better products, we’re missing out on faster innovation and a more prosperous and productive future for everyone.”

The social justice issues that rose to prominence in the United States in summer 2020 have further spotlighted this inequity. As a result, tech leaders are more determined than ever to change the culture of their industry. To do so, they’re using technology itself to reimagine and rebuild the talent pipeline in ways that encourage, support and guide more girls of color into STEM careers.

In particular, they’re counting on three strategies to help them achieve their objective: exposing more girls of color to STEM in the first place, recognizing industry bias and building long-term professional networks.

Increasing Exposure

Organizations like Girls Who Code and Intel-backed Million Girls Moonshot  – whose mission is engaging 1 million more girls in STEM learning opportunities through afterschool and summer programs over the next five years – are encouraging girls of color to see STEM as an accessible option from an early age.

Doing so is critical because girls often internalize failure in ways that keep them from pursuing STEM careers even when they enjoy them, suggests Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani. 

“When the guys are struggling with an assignment [in an introductory coding class], they’ll come in and they’ll say, ‘Professor, there’s something wrong with my code,’” Saujani said in a 2016 TED Talk. “The girls will come in and say, ‘Professor, there’s something wrong with me.’”

Study after study shows girls excelling over boys in math and science until they reach middle school, at which point there is a sharp decline in female achievement that persists through college. Girls Who Code, Million Girls Moonshot and similar organizations believe they can reverse the female achievement gap by addressing the female confidence gap: By giving girls – especially girls of color – more opportunities to succeed in STEM early and often, they believe they can build competence, and that competence ultimately will breed confidence.

Exposing Bias

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased obstacles for women of color in STEM, according to Girls Who Code COO Dr. Tarika Barrett. 

“The fact is that nearly 40% of women with engineering degrees either quit soon after entering the field or they don’t end up entering the field at all,” she told CNBC in a June 2020 interview. “If you think specifically about this crisis … companies need to support women very differently.”

Increasingly common forms of support, for example, are remote working and flexible schedules, which make it easier for women to balance work with caregiving responsibilities at home.

The pandemic has normalized both of them – but not enough: In December 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. economy had shed 140,000 jobs nationwide. Most if not all of them belonged to women, CNN Business reported.

“I don’t think it’s a pipeline issue at all. That’s a copout,” said Nutanix Senior Vice President of Product and Solutions Marketing Monica Kumar. 

“We have enough experience, even within STEM,” she said. “The issue is whether the skills we evaluate are skewed towards a certain persona.”

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Often, that persona is white and male. Organizations are used to seeing certain people excel at certain skills, like science or programming. The result is stereotypes that can influence who gets hired, who gets placed on certain projects, who gets promoted, etc. In order to correct those biases, organizations must recognize them and bring them out of the shadows and into the light.

Building Networks

But recognizing bias isn’t enough. 

“It’s great that we’re having the dialog,” said Kumar, who volunteers for several organizations that serve girls and women of color. 

“The next step is what organizations are doing to foster diversity and inclusion. You have to act on it.”

To that end, a major objective is building peer-to-peer and peer-to-mentor networks that support women of color as they build their careers. For example, Kumar is sponsoring a women’s coaching and mentorship program for mid-level managers at Nutanix. The program dovetails with her appointment to the board of Watermark, a Silicon Valley-based organization that facilitates networking for and among women entrepreneurs and executives, and her position as a founding circle member of Neythri, a global community of South Asian professional women.

“As a board member and a C-suite executive, I want to create more leadership opportunities for women of color like me," Kumar said. "We have to be very committed to supporting diversity and inclusion not just with words, but with actions.”

Therein lies the key not only to a more inclusive workforce, but also to stronger tech companies and better tech products.

Damon Brown is a contributing writer. Watch the Inc. columnist’s show at youtube.com/browndamon. Get your free business resources at buildfromnowquiz.com.

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