At the end of November 2021, Udacity hosted the virtual International STEM Forward with Women Conference. Women working in tech from around the globe gathered to discuss increasing diversity, inclusion, and representation.
Here are the top takeaways from the conference.
Diversity in Tech Is Necessary for an Equitable Future
Representation in tech, especially regarding race and gender, is far from representative of the actual population. While half of the total population is made up of women, less than 30% of the workforce in tech are women. Similarly, 13% of the population identify as Black, yet only 7% of tech employees are Black. When looking at leadership positions, these numbers are even more disproportionate.
Anne-Marie Imafidon, CEO of STEMettes and host of the Women Tech Charge podcast, spent the opening keynote discussing the impacts of this discrepancy. She pointed out that technology can change the world around us, but we need more diversity among the people building the technology to make that a reality.
Imafidon gave a good example of the importance of diversity in tech: speech recognition technology. The algorithms were primarily based on middle-aged American men’s voices for their first ten years of existence. This led to problems where voice assistants couldn’t understand people with accents, people of differing ages, etc. If a diverse array of voices were used to train the algorithms, the technology would have worked better for everyone.
As a woman of color in tech, Imafidon ended the keynote with some great advice on how to take up space in tech as a diverse person. She told the audience to have a growth mindset, be visible, and always be willing to build, measure, and iterate.
Removing Obstacles for Women in STEM Requires Many Solutions
Women have earned 53% of STEM degrees, yet hold far less than 50% of STEM jobs. Studies have also shown that while many women will enter the workforce, they’ll eventually leave the tech sector over the years. In order to retain women working in tech, changes will have to take place at many levels.
John McCalla-Leacy, the UK Head of ESG and partner in KPMG, moderated a panel at the International STEM Forward with Women Conference to discuss ways to clear hurdles for women in STEM to have successful careers. The panelists had a wide range of ideas on removing these barriers.
From mentoring, sponsoring, and encouraging young women interested in tech to making changes at a root level, like schools and homes, the panelists shared many insights on making these fundamental changes happen. Watch the panel here.
Reaching the Younger Generation is a Critical Key to Change
As Sylvia Mulinge, Chief Consumer Business Officer at Safaricom, said in the panel on removing barriers to women in STEM, one of the best moves is to encourage young girls to pursue careers in tech. Building their confidence in themselves, helping generate an interest in science and technology, and presenting STEM as a viable career choice can make a huge impact and spur change for the future.
Çiğdem Kayali, Director of Cybersecurity at Microsoft, works to close gender bias stereotypes in MENA through DigiGirlz. “The idea is to talk about the technology industry, the opportunities ahead, the innovation happening, and help them to get some insights about coding technology and some hands-on experience.”
Not only does this program get young girls excited about STEM, it also helps connect them with mentors and role models they can rely on. Claudia Wentsch, Director of TTTech Auto Germany, also worked on DigiGirlz and applauded how it engages girls as young as seven to ten. That is the age that a lot of tech interest begins to develop, so reaching kids at that age is critical.
Creating Equality in STEM Careers Benefits All People
In current societal standards, women are often discriminated against in terms of salary and equity and held back by outdated expectations for familial obligations. As Dr. Christiane Mueck, an advisor at MISK Foundation in Saudi Arabia, moderated the panel discussion on how governments and NGOs can help close the STEM talent gap, it became obvious that any benefits aimed at women would really benefit all people.
When we look to make changes to benefit women, we also must look at their other identities. Are they a racial minority? Are they differently-abled ? Are they LGBTQ+? These identities matter when it comes to how these people are treated. And overall, as changes are made to benefit women while looking at their identities, it clearly becomes less and less about women in general, and more about how to create healthy, happy, and thriving humans.
Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer at Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, wrapped it up the best: “If we can stop just talking about women and we can talk about humans, I think then suddenly it becomes about individuals — individual contributions and individual adaptation, and how we can assure that we’re cultivating a sustainable future for every individual in this planet.”
We Must Examine Our Privilege Regularly
Understanding privilege is challenging. Not only does it involve careful introspection and the ability to judge ourselves in a brutally honest way, but it’s also a never-ending process. Still, it’s critical work, especially for people with decision-making power within an organization. Without recognizing one’s own privilege, it can become startlingly easy to forget to include those with varying identities.
Sheree Archeson, an award-winning global diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) executive and author, talked through the concepts of inclusion and privilege in her closing keynote speech. She shared how her own experience showed her how to train others to see their privilege and consider others, especially when they hold positions of power.
“Empathy and consideration are key here. That doesn’t just mean fluffy statements, but considerate, deliberate empathy when you are rolling out changes, when you are considering changes, and when you are reaching out to new people.”
This work is by no means easy, but it’s vital work. Sheree encourages the underprivileged, those with one or many minority identities, to demand more from their organizations. And to the leaders, she implores them to do the work and do better for everyone. “Challenge yourself on your bias, on your viewpoints, and on your perspectives.”
Watch the International STEM Forward with Women Conference Sessions
If any of these discussions particularly piqued your interest, you can watch the International Women in STEM Conference recordings here.