Diversity in our technology and engineering workforce is a hot topic, and with good reason. Washington has the highest concentration of science, tech, engineering and math (STEM)-related jobs in the country, but the lack of women and people of color in this sector is glaringly obvious.
It isn’t enough to simply complain. We must tackle the root causes of this issue, not only for the good of individuals who will find livelihoods in this sector, but for our innovation-based industries as well.
Pursuing a career in STEM is a smart move for many students. These professions offer above-average pay and a range of fulfilling job opportunities. So why isn’t there more diversity? According to a study by the U.S. Census Department last year, African Americans hold only 6 percent of the jobs in these fields, and Hispanics only 7 percent — numbers far below their representation in the overall workforce. Women hold only 26 percent of these jobs.
In order to grow our technical workforce, the talent pool from which STEM companies find their employees must grow much more diverse. As someone who works with leaders in the tech industry, I can report that CEOs believe that diversifying their workforces is not only the right thing to do, it is also seen as a business imperative.
The industry’s call for more women and people of color in their ranks is not lip service. In the end, it benefits the bottom line. Recent reports by both Scientific American and Forbes present clear evidence that homogenous workforces are less productive, and less innovative. Working with people from different perspectives and backgrounds pushes people to excel and think in new ways. A study this year by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that among roughly 3,000 global companies, those with women in leadership positions measurably outperformed those without them.
Fixing STEM’s diversity problem will rely on companies opening their doors to a wider range of job applicants, but it goes deeper. For example, computer programmers are in increasingly high demand. As of 2012, only 18 percent of the computer-science majors in U.S. universities were women, a number that’s actually dropped by 19 points since 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Although the University of Washington is doing much better in this department, there is still a long way to go.
We must create an educational pipeline that engages more students in STEM subjects, and both inspires and enables them to pursue careers in these fields. Just as having a diverse workforce helps companies think and work more creatively, we must also get creative in our solutions. Efforts by Code.org, Washington STEM, and the Technology Alliance are doing their part to help create these pathways, but a more concentrated effort is needed to create systemic change and keep Washington competitive.
Susannah Malarkey is executive director of Technology Alliance, a non-profit coalition of Washington’s tech companies and research institutions.