Americans — and their elected officials — should take note. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of computer scientists is expected to grow a whopping 24 percent between 2008 and 2018, which the Bureau says is “much faster” than average for most occupations. Rebecca Blank, acting secretary at the Commerce Department, tells me that because of this increased need, the participation of more women will keep the industry, and the country, globally competitive in the long run.
These realities have significant implications for the economy on a more micro level: Women in traditionally well-paying STEM jobs, particularly computer science, enjoy more wage parity with men than in other occupations. Lack of female presence also has long-reaching cultural and social ramifications. Christianne Corbett, a senior researcher for the American Association of University Women and co-author of the 2010 report “Why So Few?,” is blunt: “The growth of technology is driven by the people who are designing it. Without women at the design table, the interests of half the population will basically be ignored.” Adds Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology: “We don’t know what women would invent because by and large right now, they are not.”
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It starts young. Although girls have achieved meaningful parity with boys in test scores and college degrees in math and science, they are also being sent a message that embracing these subjects is anathema to what it means to be female. (Mainstream Hollywood movies about technology innovation that relegate females to sexualized-accessory status don’t help matters. Neither do sexist comments from Ivy League university presidents or pink T-shirts for ’tweens with phrases such as “Allergic to Algebra.”)
“We are back to the beauty versus brains saga, in which girls entering middle school feel forced to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to be smart in math, or do I want to be seen as attractive?’ ” says Jennifer Skaggs, a University of Kentucky education researcher and author of the June 2011 paper Making the Blind to See: Balancing STEM Identity With Gender Identity. “If a female is seen as technically competent, she is assumed to be socially incompetent. And it works the other way around.”
Maresa Leto, 19, a sophomore at Michigan State taking her first computer science course this semester, understands this well. “I think it’s just part of what teenage girls are taught, which is to act dumb and cutesy so they don’t intimidate guys,” says Leto, whose older sister Lauren, a tech entrepreneur, urged her to give programming a try. As for the computer science class she’s taking, Leto says that she is one of a handful of women in the class. “No one has commented on the gender disparity, but I am conscious of it. I try to seem smarter than I actually am, just to prove I belong there.”