Love IT or List IT: Renovating STEM

Paige Francis, Associate CIO, University of Arkansas
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Paige Francis, Associate CIO, University of Arkansas

Paige Francis, Associate CIO, University of Arkansas

Per the US Census, women outnumber men by a hair in the United States. Within higher education, the divide is much greater given women routinely outnumber men in both college enrollment and graduation rates by double digits. Despite this, only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees are awarded to women. That number shrinks further at top research universities. According to The Tambellini Group, women are becoming invisible in the thriving technology and computing sector. The very sector with the highest starting salaries, 35 percent increased the likelihood to have a job, and a nearly recession-proof industry anticipating job growth between 12-37 percent through 2022.

Why should we care?

We hear time and time again that a strong, sustainable workforce needs to reflect a population; people like seeing people ‘like them’. Meredith Lowry, Patent Attorney for Wright, Lindsey, Jennings and co-chair of the 2017 NWA Tech Summit, states, “With technology, like with most things in life, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. It’s imperative that we have more female and diverse voices in constructing technology solutions to help address problems faced by our entire population, rather than a discrete segment.”A consumer wants a product designed for them that is attractive to them. For that to happen, we need a workforce with representative insight. As everything these days seems to have some level of connective tissue—thick or thin—attached to technology, clearly, input for design, creation, marketing, service needs to be reflective of the population. The question is and continues to be, how do we attract more women to STEM, to technology leadership, to technical fields?

Despite the exhaustive current outreach within the industry, K-12, summer camps, kids’ toys, you name it, it’s not working. How are we investing so much time, energy, publicity, and funding resulting in so little movement in the right direction? Within higher-education, and education in general, I do believe we are in a unique position to dramatically improve tech career adoption for all genders knowing that with even minimal traction, given current enrollment data, this should intrinsically move the dial on women in STEM and help support our future economy. But to be impactful, we’ve got to mean it. How do we increase adoption?

  We need more talent, across genders, within an industry that needs a complete branding overhaul  

Based on my experience I’ve concluded that the entire technology industry needs to be rebranded. Hard stop.

HGTV’s Love It or List It is a television show described, “When a house no longer feels like home, homeowners are left with a big financial and emotional question: renovate or sell it?” In many ways, I feel as if this is where we are with IT. And obviously, we can’t simply sell the career path and move on as statistics show that by 2020, 1.4 million computer science jobs will be available in the US, yet we’ll have just 29 percent of the qualified graduates to fill them – and less than three percent will be filled by women. We need more talent, across genders, within an industry that needs a complete branding overhaul. Yesterday’s technical career features are today’s inaccurate assumptions – they are the peeling vinyl floors, Formica countertops and shag carpeting (without the retro chic part, of course). Yes, building systems, 24/7 work schedules and coding in dark rooms still exist, but they are the exception these days, not the rule.

The assumptions held by most on careers in technology in very few (and continuously shrinking) ways accurately match today’s technology landscape. In fact, current girls-in-STEM initiatives focus almost solely on girl-ifying engineering technology – the science of perfume and bath bomb making through building pink robots. Of course, scientists, chemists, and network engineers will always be in demand and the careers are innovative and cool by any standard, but there are many, many more flavors of computer science jobs today, like analysis (business, technical, application, data), search engine optimization, digital marketing, social media management, user experience, coding (video games, apps), technical writing, project management, web content management, training, sales and development, with each spawning professional consultant careers to externally support all of the above.

We are trying to increase engagement in an industry based on horrifically outdated information on that industry. There needs to be a complete renovation on how we sell STEM as a career, a to-the-studs demolition. We have seemingly impossible numbers to reach and currently, “Women are the minority in technology positions and it’s time to level the playing field. Technology touches every aspect of our lives and it’s important to open these doors for the next generation of women. Celebrating and encouraging women to pursue technology careers needs to be part of the strategic plan for every company. I look forward to the time when we do not have to be concerned with the statistics,” shares Debbie Griffin, EVP/COO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce and Director of the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit.

From all perspectives, I challenge anyone anywhere to produce a successful, replicable model to increase engagement in technology as a degree, as a career, as a future across genders. For a CIO, I encourage a high visibility presence on campus or across the workplace selling technology as a futuristic, ever-evolving, strategic option for career choice. Be the change.

For academia, we are present when most students make the decision to pursue STEM or not pursue STEM. We are perfectly poised to help re-introduce technology as a not only viable but enviable and smart choice for their whole person. For industry, more women in technology are simply good business. Our numbers need to at minimum match our male counterpart’s numbers to reflect the current population. In addition, more women in STEM help ensure our nation’s consumers’ alongside staffing industry demands.

As a woman in STEM, I believe for starters we need to be visible, we need to advocate and we need to support others who have made the smart choice to join us on this path. So here I am. Your turn. Let’s do this.

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