Women In STEM: A Case For Diversity

When it comes to STEM education and career fields, there are longstanding associated gender imbalances.  And although the gender gap in STEM fields may be narrowing, the numbers are clear.  Women make up a disproportionately small percentage of STEM career positions, and get paid less than men for the same positions.

What are STEM Fields?

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – and is sometimes referred to as STEAM (if you include the arts).  Effectively, this includes coding, design, and the hands-on world of DIY maker culture.  STEM education and related fields are the backbone of innovative, real world applications.

The Numbers by Field

Globally, there has been a consistent trend line since the 1980’s.  More and more women are graduating from college than men, and the surplus of college educated women in the US continues to grow.  In 2013, there were 1.3 female undergraduate students for every 1 male undergraduate student.  Still, those pursuing STEM career fields fall sharply behind their male peers.

A Case For Diversity

Why is workplace diversity important?  Advocating for diversity in professional workplaces is not an abstract altruistic ideal, but a goal rooted as a necessity to leading competitive organizations.  The business argument is simple and is as follows: diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams.  Corporations with more female board members earn more.  Why?  Because when we workplaces have a variety of unique perspectives, the organization can think differently and come up with more creative solutions.  This study by McKinsey on why diversity matters buttresses this point.  If only for a purely analytical business perspective, the numbers speak for themselves.  Gender and racial diversity is important for the success of organizations.

Women in 3D Printing and Design Fields

Recently, I met Pascale Sablan, a Pratt architecture alumnus, at an architectural roundtable at Pratt Institute.  She is literally the 315th black female architect in the USA (of all time).  I found this number to be shocking.  The United States has been a country for 240 years.

While working in 3d printing, I had colleagues and peers from a several academic backgrounds.  After all, 3d printing is not a discipline in itself as much as a tool of designers across a wide spectrum.  However, most designers that use digital fabrication come from one of the following academic backgrounds:

  • Architecture (18% of licensced practioners are women)
  • Product Design (no clear figures)
  • Animation (80% of the animation workforce is male)
  • Engineering (Mechanical engineering is 92% male)
  • Computer Science (82% male)

Once you break down the numbers based on the academic pathways to emerging careers in 3d printing and digital fabrication, you can see a few things.  With the exception of animation, the educational pipelines that lead to careers in 3d printing and tech+design, have a significant gender deficit.

Pedagogical Toolbox vs. Content Creation

What are some issues regarding the introduction of contemporary and relevant STEM education materials?  Sometimes the issue is paradoxical.  The content creators who may be leading their field and producing innovative work, are typically those who do not have a pedagogical education toolbox or platform.  Those that have the hands-on experience, in areas where hands-on and interactive learning is necessary, may not have the platform for effectively teaching those necessary skills.  Conversely, STEM educators can be divorced from the real world application compared to the content creators.  Is there a way to bridge the skills and gender gap simultaneously, by creating a platform for female professional content creators and professional leaders to teach real world STEM applications and skillsets to those who currently lack access?

Professionals aren’t always teachers.

Teachers aren’t always professionals.

Why Encouraging STEM with Youth is Important

In 1984, 37% of computer science graduates were women.  In 2017, the number is 18%.

You can see in this graph how interest in, or enrollment in computer science classes drops over time.  The largest drop off is between the ages of 13-17.

Working Towards a Solution

Deren Guler, is the founder of Teknikio, a company which makes STE(A)M educational kits which apply engineering concepts.  She found that most educational engineering kits were made for boys, so she created gender neutral kits to encourage girls to inspire young kids to potentially pursue STEM education/ careers.

The Lady Tech Guild is a collaborative of a number of women in design + tech.  Among them are Sophie Kahn (founder of 3d scanning studio, Scanner Works NY), Lauren Slowick (design and education evangelist at Shapeways), and fine artist Ashley Zelenskie.  Currently, LTG hosts semi regular networking events in NYC to connect women in the tech + design space and are working on expanding into consulting and hosting workshops.

One extremely successful organization has been Girls Who Code.  They have organized industry leaders to provide workshops to close the gender gap in technology.  By mobilizing female leaders in their field and creating workshops and becoming the largest pipeline of future engineers in the United States.

STEM education and jobs are going to be the backbone of our future economy.

How do we promote diversity for tomorrows jobs and workplaces? How to we provide access to STEM education that fills the professional skill gap and encourage STEM education in young people?

Will the trend lines eventually resolve this imbalance?  It’s an open question how to approach this.  For the design world, I think that today’s professionals and content creators should work together and form a platform to address these issue by creative hands on and interactive workshops to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs.

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Thanks for reading!

Austin Robey
Founder, Pixel Practice