How Do You Encourage Women To Join Your Industry?

The answer to that question is not always straightforward. Here’s how one association is trying to help level the STEM playing field and get more women interested in IT jobs.

The stats are noteworthy. Women made up 27 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the United States in 2011, a decline from 34 percent in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And while much of the decline is attributed to fewer women holding positions in computer occupations, the Census Bureau has also reported that among science and engineering college graduates, men hold STEM occupations at twice the rate of women [PDF].

The primary barrier to interest in IT as a career is that young people—girls, especially—don’t understand the full range of options available to them.

Women are largely underrepresented in STEM jobs, and it’s a cause for concern.

“The development of world-class talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is critical to America’s global leadership,” the White House states on its Office of Science and Technology Policy website. Encouraging more women to enter the field is just as critical, OSTP adds: “Supporting women STEM students and researchers is not only an essential part of America’s strategy to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. It is also important to women themselves.”

But how should organizations, educators, and elected officials go about encouraging women to seek out occupations in STEM fields?

One popular solution is to expose women, especially young women, to the variety of job opportunities that are available in these areas.

IT industry group CompTIA is doing this. In March, the association announced it was planning to reach 10,000 women, students, and prospective employers about job opportunities available for women in IT.

Through its IT “evangelism” platform, launched by CompTIA’s volunteer-led Advancing Women in IT Community, members plan to visit colleges, universities, high schools, even fraternities, sororities, and scouting organizations spreading the good word about IT jobs.

And just this week, CompTIA announced it is launching two new websites devoted to attracting more women into the IT workforce. A new Dream IT website will host presentation materials for anyone interested in taking part in CompTIA’s evangelism movement, and a new Career Resources Center will feature resources and information on IT career opportunities.

“The primary barrier to interest in IT as a career is that young people—girls, especially—don’t understand the full range of options available to them,” Nancy Hammervik, senior vice president, industry relations, CompTIA, said in a statement. “But when they’re exposed to specific job and career opportunities their interest level jumps.”

This was the case at Harvey Mudd College, where President Maria Klawe and faculty decided several years ago that they would try to get more women interested in computer programming. After examining why women historically do not enter the field, Klawe and faculty members set out to change the story. The college now attempts to expose women to the computer programming profession as soon as they walk on campus by offering to pay for all female first-year students to attend the world’s largest conference of women technologists—the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Faculty also changed the introductory computer-programming class and tailored it to be less intimidating and more fun for women.

And it worked: The percentage of women graduates of the school’s computer science program jumped from 10 percent in 2005 to roughly 40 percent in 2011.

The issue of appealing to an underrepresented demographic, whether it be women or, in the case of many associations, millennials, is not an easy one to solve. It takes time and often a lot of trial and error. But as some have proven, making an effort to understand and reach out to those audiences may just work.

How has your association tried to appeal to underrepresented demographics? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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