Editor's Note: This post is part of HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the conversation here or on Twitter (#hpSTEM) as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
Is public perception hanging a "do not enter" sign for women in front of the technology industry?
My company, oDesk, recently commissioned a survey of more than 3,000 independent professionals who work on oDesk. They shared their thoughts on entrepreneurship, career paths -- including in tech -- and the future of work.
When asked how important gender is to career potential, 76 percent of respondents said "not very important" or "not at all important." However, when asked if some industries offer more opportunity to women than other industries, two-thirds (65 percent) said yes.
I was bewildered by that mismatch in the two responses. Does gender matter or does it not?
I eventually concluded that we're seeing the gap between what people wish to be true and what they actually believe to be true. Perhaps respondents don't want to admit that in 2013, gender still impacts career potential -- but when it comes down to it, they recognize that the business world is not the land of equal opportunity.
We remain vastly underrepresented on corporate boards and in executive positions (4 percent of CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies), and we still earn significantly less than men for the same work (77 percent of men's annual salaries, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research).
My own industry, technology, fared poorly in the survey. When respondents were asked which industries were perceived as offering the best opportunities for women, technology came in third from last, only ahead of engineering and manufacturing.
I've seen disheartening evidence of this firsthand. As my son has moved through high school I've observed the gender composition of his math and computer classes. The more advanced the class, the more the number of girls thins out. Last year, for example, there were two girls and more than 25 boys in his AP Programming class. Anecdotes like these make it hard to argue that the situation is improving. And my son's school is in the San Francisco Bay Area, surrounded by a vibrant technology culture.
How do we change this for the next generation? Specifically, what would it take -- beyond mentorship programs -- to get more young women graduating from STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) or to build careers on the business side of technology companies, like I did?
Stumped for a solution, I decided to ask my son. Without hesitation -- and from his vantage point as a passionate programmer who has worked in a technology company as well as observed the classroom dynamic -- he prescribed three remedies:
1. Make computer programming a requirement for high school graduation. Coding requires students to learn a way of thinking that is equally accessible to girls and boys and is increasingly the foundation for our economy, industry and lives. Once programming is demystified, he argued, a greater number of girls will choose to pursue a future in STEM.
2. Aggressively combat stereotypes of computer scientists. Clarify that programming is approachable, not an exotic talent. Anyone can learn it, just like anyone can choose to learn a language or how to ride a bike.
3. Expose the creativity involved in advanced math and engineering. "There is as much poetry in advanced math and related fields as there is in poetry itself. If society were made aware of that, creative people -- both girls and boys -- who might not otherwise go into STEM would at least consider it," he said.
Of course, there is still work to do, discussions to have, and progress to make.
Here's what I love about working in technology: disrupting the status quo and being on the leading edge of trends are core to our culture. What's more, tech companies are leading the way in flexible work and other next-generation workplace policies, which can make the industry a much friendlier place for women who don't want to choose between having a family and having an accomplished career. (For the full story of how I personally handled that decision, check out my blog post here).
For those of you who also have experience with the tech industry, I'm curious to hear whether this is a shared sentiment. Do you feel the industry offers women more, fewer or the same opportunities for success as other industries? What do we need to do to encourage more girls to pursue STEM or other careers in tech, and how can we nurture their success?
For more information on Girls in STEM, check out the following articles:
Follow Jaleh Bisharat on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jalehbisharat