Role models the key to STEM diversity
27 April 2018 | 0
As a male, I have to confess that I don’t consciously think about role models, whether it be in journalism or the IT industry or any other sphere of life for that matter. And that’s because I don’t need to. Most of the prominent figures are like me, men. I’ve never had to stop and think, for instance, how I would have felt about working in journalism or IT or any other career, if the people at the top who were the most visible embodiments of those careers weren’t male.
The thing about IT, however, is that it hasn’t been seen as ‘male’ in the traditional sense, probably because it’s not old enough to be classified as of the more traditional male professions. Being in IT is not like wanting to be a fireman or an astronaut or a soldier or a policeman. Mind you, in my day, not many people grew up wanting to be leaders of huge corporations either.
I suppose it’s the geeky thing that made it appear less masculine too. You don’t necessarily equate IT with the ‘traditional’ male attributes of physicality or toughness. But it is very male in other respects. Geeks and nerds can be just as rigid in their gender demarcations as the jocks.
Too often, women and girls have been dismissed as not being able to understand the complexities of technology. Men in technology have been as quick to impose their views on the role women can play as their counterparts in the fire service or the police force. And there can be just as much of a “don’t worry your pretty little head about that luv” attitude as you might get from an old-school plumber or electrician.
There’s a serious point behind all this. Strong role models can play a part in activating and sustaining an interest in a putative career. I accept there might be people prepared to dispute that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison are especially convincing role models for young men but their success has helped to make IT an acceptable career for males in general rather than confine it to the province of geeks and nerds. The business that has sprung up around IT has also attracted males into the industry and created role models in a more traditional business mould.
So what about women in IT or, more broadly, STEM? Research from Microsoft suggests 46% of young girls would be more interested in STEM when inspired by a female peer and three out of five girls with strong role models in their lives could imagine a future career in STEM. The key word there is ‘imagine’ because only two out of five with a STEM role model actually work in STEM subjects.
It’s true there have been some high profile female leaders of IT companies, such as Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, but they have tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Over the years, we should see more female role models that help inspire more young women into STEM careers. Right now, we need them. But over time, it will only be at the point where young women don’t need female role models anymore that we’ll know the IT industry has reached parity for both sexes.