Is Gender Diversity In STEM Workforce Possible Without K-Leadership?

03/10/2016 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The many recent public declarations about lack of gender diversity in the workforce (particularly in Tech ) were promptly followed by commitments to remedy with sponsored STEM Education programs. This is a step in the right direction, most definitely brilliant PR and even has some results (for Intel) but does it solve the problem or even propose a credible strategy?

The Issue

Not only do we have to solve for gender diversity, we have to address the gaping hole in the STEM workforce. As many as 2.4M STEM or STEM related jobs might be unfilled by 2018. A much deeper issue is that of gender diversity in corporate leadership. While Melissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are great examples of change the average percentage of women in leadership roles in Silicon Valley (mostly Tech) is 12%. Imagine business dynamics and impact on natural resources, work-life culture and the environment if more women were at the helm!

Many "gender diversity" and STEM efforts are ongoing. Programs are being run by the Government (President Obama allocated $110M for K-12 Stem Innovation, STEM Ed Coalition ), multiple Non-profits (Citizens Schools, Asset Inc, P1Stem, After School Alliance, Girls Who Code, Science Club For Girls ), Educational institutions and large corporations (Google, Facebook, Vertex, Salesforce, EMC, Ebay, GlaxoSmithKline etc.). Plenty of organizations like Women In Technology International and Innovation Women are dedicated to career support and raising professional profiles.

Some corporate foundations run nationwide science fairs. Some programs focus on creating interest in STEM for K-6 girls. Some programs drive retention of that interest through high school. Others provide scholarships for STEM choices in college. There are also initiatives providing STEM internships and mentoring for women at companies. However no comprehensive plan exists!

No program or orchestration of programs addresses the full gamut of challenges along a girl's path into the STEM workforce. We cannot guarantee that a steadily growing stream of qualified women will change gender diversity numbers if we do not provide "K through Leadership" support!

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Several obstacles must be overcome

  1. The general population still turns girls away from interest in STEM. And despite rising awareness corporate glass ceilings persist for women.
  2. No single organization has the resources or the expertise to do it all. Corporations have money but not much teaching expertise. Educational and Non-profit organizations have neither the skills nor the funding to teach across all STEM subjects.
  3. Organizations are wary of diluting their "Brand" by partnering. Non-profits and Educational institutions insist on their methodologies and identities. Corporations fund initiatives from marketing budgets with focus on PR and humanizing the corporation. Non-profits devolve into lifestyle companies. Educational institutions are curriculum and funding bound.
  4. No connectable steps all the way to workforce exist for effective measurement whereby the problem can never be quantified or solved.

This is no path that nurtures girls' incipient STEM interest in K-6 and supports it all the way through to fruitful contributions in the STEM workforce or to world changing leadership. No organization or authority understands or takes ownership of this. Cherubic girl children doing science in K-6 programs are adorable and draw a lot of attention. However, if they do not mature into effective women in STEM jobs and leadership roles, then those programs have not served their implicit mission!

The Solution Required

If some overarching force does not build a coalition of organizations and programs that can successively support girls along a "K through Leadership" path, then gender diversity will still be up to chance!

Who should own such an initiative? What capabilities should such a coalition muster?

Either Government or a large influential corporation should become the instigator and gather partnerships that can support K-12 girls, STEM college entry and scholarships, STEM internships, workforce placement and corporate mentoring for women. The owner should assemble both funding and programming for all parts of this path. Lastly, a system of success metrics to understand the various issues along the path and find solutions while getting ever more girls on this path must be created!

Companies should actually orchestrate gender diversity in their ranks instead of merely making themselves look responsible with highly visible sponsorships and ineffectively focused Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. CSR with one eye on the corporate brand is not effective. If competing companies can come together and define industry standards towards mutual benefit, why can they not come together and be collectively responsible for funding and running this hugely important endeavor? Several large companies should join together to create this K-Leadership path!

Perhaps the Government should convene a national umbrella of CSR, Non-profit and Educational participants towards pumping the STEM workforce and pushing the USA back to the top?

Game Change

What else can we do to jumpstart K-Leadership?

We live in an age where you do not need to go to class anymore. You can find answers, educate yourself and even get degrees online. The internet also allows teaching, mentors, material and friendships to be accessible no matter where you are located geographically. And yet no one is attempting to make this kind of self-actualization a widely adopted path!

Institutions are beginning to use online resources as aids. It is time to push further and empower our learners to seek out their own learning and success. With connectivity, mobile devices and already existing libraries of engaging online material we have an anytime anywhere "contextual with life activities" reality. Why do Educators and Tech providers not empower young girls to naturally cultivate STEM interests and control their STEM destinies with this?

Lastly, program effectiveness is driven by program excellence but more by how well girls and women utilize learning and programs. Those that are hungriest for opportunity are most likely to absorb and excel. Let us make sure we identify the hungriest and serve them with K-Leadership first!