Feature Story

Challenge to CIOs: Bring Diversity to STEM Education

The strength of tomorrow’s IT workforce depends on drawing from a wider pool of candidates, says Jenna Carpenter.

“If the cure for cancer is in the mind of a Junior High girl, the odds are we’ll never find it.”

Who made this bold statement? Jenna Carpenter, the founding dean of engineering at Campbell University. It’s the first sentence in her TEDx Talk, Engineering: Where are the girls and why aren’t they here?

Connected Futures recently met up with Carpenter as she addressed Cisco’s CIO Exchange, a discussion forum with 45 innovative CIOs and keynote speakers from a variety of disciplines.

Carpenter said the the future success of IT relies on CIOs embracing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. “Make STEM one of your top five careabouts,” she told them. “If it’s not in your top-five, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Diversity strengthens the IT workforce

According to a recent IT Talent survey by Cisco of 600 IT and business decision makers, organizations’ reliance on technology to innovate and compete has created a skills gap.

“We’re not meeting IT workforce needs in this country,” Carpenter said. “We’ve been under-producing.”

Several statistics show the IT profession is leaving a lot of potential talent on the table.

For example, women now represent a large majority of college students overall — as much as two-to-one, said Carpenter. Also, in 2013, kindergarten classes in the United States were ‘majority minority’ for the first time.

However, Pew Research data confirms that women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM occupations. In fact, according to Pew, in 1990, 32% of workers in computer jobs were women, but in 2016 that number dropped to 25%.We’ve got to capture that non-traditional talent if we’re going to meet IT workforce needs.Those numbers show the potential for diverse STEM candidates to fill the skills gap. In fact, it’s imperative. When those majority-minority kindergarteners grow up and reach the workforce nine years from now, Carpenter said, “if we haven't figured out how to attract women and underrepresented minorities to IT and STEM fields, we are absolutely toast.”

In fact, closing that gap and inspiring women and minorities to become part of IT should have happened well before now. According to Carpenter, “We should’ve started five years ago,” because research shows that many four-year-olds in the U.S. will still say math is for boys, and reading is for girls. We are already behind the curve if we expect them to go down a STEM path.

Carpenter noted that students with access to summer robotics camp, Advanced Placement courses, and top-notch schools are often inspired to major in engineering.

“We’re great at attracting middle-class white talent. But we do a crappy job of attracting non-traditional students,” she said.

“We’ve got to capture that talent if we’re going to meet IT workforce needs. People who have different life experiences, they’re your key to success,” she told the gathered CIOs.

Creating an inclusive workplace

Carpenter turned her focus to the many unconscious biases in the workforce prevent creation of a diverse workforce.

“We’re all guilty of it. I’m as guilty of it as anybody in the room,” she stated. “It’s fueled by stereotypes in our culture.”

Carpenter gave a well-documented example of stereotypes in action: Take a resume and make a copy. One copy has a woman’s name, the second copy has a male’s name. Put both in the stack for review. “You know who we’d say was better qualified? The guy. Even though the resumes are exactly the same,” she said.

“If you’re a woman, in a traditionally male discipline, this comes at you all day long, every day. It creates a chilly climate,” she said.

This type of bias extends far beyond the hiring process. Carpenter said many women leave STEM fields around age 40. “You want to know why women leave the workforce — provided they make it this far?” she asked. “Because they have absolutely had it.”

Armed with this proof that conscious and unconscious bias exists, Carpenter asked the CIO Exchange attendees “What can you do? We need you to help create an inclusive culture. How do you do that? The first thing is to admit we’re all influenced by implicit bias.”

These biases can affect even the interpretation of data. “I have been in a room, presented data, and the men say, ‘How did they ask that question?’ or ‘Who did they ask?’ or ‘What were the other responses?’ ” she said. “Men spend all their time and effort trying to debunk the data.”

She told the CIOs that they may not want to believe that success is based — even in some small way — on our gender or race. “I’m not a guy, but I am white, I’m middle-class, and I had great grandparents who went to college,” she told them. “I know without a doubt that I benefited from that.”

A woman has to be 2.5 times more successful to be ranked equal with the man, said Carpenter, citing a study conducted by researchers at Gothenburg University.

“No wonder so few women make it. That’s hard to do, 2.5 times,” she said. “That’s why it’s so hard for guys to buy into this stuff. You’re not feeling this on a daily basis.”

Carpenter said the first step in overcoming these biases is to raise awareness. “Once you begin to become aware of this, your awareness builds over time, and once the bias moves from unconscious to conscious, then you’re aware of it, and you can do something with it,” she said.

And even if just a handful of those in the room or reading this article does something, perhaps that Junior High girl will be the one who cures cancer.