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Closing The Gap On Women In STEM

By Melissa Unsell-Smith

Minority women in the 1960s were solving rocket science trajectories for NASA and managing mainframe computers. Katherine Johnson, for example, solved calculations of orbital mechanics that were critical to the success of the first manned spaceflights. The barriers she and her female counterparts faced were immersive; the path they paved insurmountable.

Katherine Johnson, Photo Credit: NASA

Fast forward to the 1980s. There were an equal number of females and males engaged in computer science at this time. A balance of men and women engaged in computational activity. Nearing the end of the decade, computing became more affordable and prevalent. A shift began to occur in which males took more interest in computer science than females. Many believe this started when home computers came to market and advertising agencies chose to focus on males as their primary target. The idea that computers are for boys became the commonplace narrative, leaving women out of the equation.

This sentiment prevailed well into the 90s and 2000s, widening the gap of women engaging in computational activity. With messages such as ‘math is hard’, ‘a woman’s primary role is in the home,’ as well as toys dictating gender roles did nothing to help encourage women to pursue STEM.

I often think about how this dilemma can be solved. How can we close the gap, and materialize an equal playing field for women in STEM? I grew up being fascinated by rocks and curated quite the rock collection, I also loved cars and would ask for one every time we went to the store. I also had Barbies and doll houses and changed outfits at least twice a day. Was this pivotal to my interest in science and technology today? Perhaps.

Upon recently reading Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organizations book, my thoughts directed to doubling patterns in our society, especially when it comes to data and connected devices. I began to think about applying the exponential concepts to addressing this prolific problem of women in STEM.

Melissa and Salim Ismail, Author and Founding Executive Director of Singularity University

According to by 2020, there will be 1.4 million new computer science jobs, but there are only 400,000 computer science students (of which only 20% are female). The number of computer science jobs is growing at a pace two times the national average for job growth. This is an exponential return. The job growth is doubling every year, so we need to intervene with exponential strategies to fill the gap and increase the number of women. The notion of exponential is based on the law of accelerating returns which describes doubling patterns in technology. The basic concept is that whenever anything is information-enabled, it can experience exponential (10x growth rate) year after year. This exponential concept also relates to Moore’s Law, which proclaims that processing power for computers will double every two years.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I see a distinct opportunity to employ exponential strategies to even the playing field of women in tech. These strategies can be deployed in our traditional learning models, with local organizations that help women gain access to computer science as well as applying these from a social and cultural perspective.

The four key components of exponential growth are: digitization, de-monetization, democratization and disruption. Let’s look at these as a model for closing the gap for women at an accelerated pace.

We are an information-enabled society. We have a ton of digitized information at our fingertips. This allows for exponential access to data sets and public records that can be used for interaction and learning. With open data directives, increased data sharing activities, and data philanthropy becoming increasingly normal, access to data and the ability to interact with it will continue to rise. Access to this data creates a digital playground in many different sectors. Women are known to pursue meaningful work tied to a specific cause; this innate desire directly correlates with the opportunity to use this digital playground to solve interesting problems in diverse sectors.

The more information-enabled we become, the more we see financial barriers depleted for people that don’t have access to computational learning. Not far off in the future, computational learning won’t require monetary means. Computing will be free for all who wish to learn how to code, regardless of financial barriers. If you have a connected device, you can engage in computational activity. With online games and websites popping up every day, young kids don’t necessarily require a teacher to practice coding. Self-directed learning will become prevalent to those interested in adding to their knowledge. A few years ago, Lauren Boyle, digital girl of the year, created a website to help her peers become interested in coding. Take Lauren as an example and her efforts now inspire other young women to do the same.

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Lauren Boyle, founder, Cool Kids Studio (image via @laurenboyletech)

By 2030 there will be 1 trillion connected devices. This provides opportunity for digital access to numerous people. This is important for normal play with computer science and exposing STEM to females. As connected devices become so widespread, the more prevalent the number of females exposed to STEM becomes. This exponential concept allows for additional exposure models to computer science beyond what is currently offered.

Data enables disruption. A disruptive innovation is one that creates completely new markets and displaces what we know as the norm. Access and interaction with data can even result in major benefits to society. For example, there are groups of kids in Kenya holding their own coder dojos to solve challenging problems regarding access to clean water. At no other time in our life has this been a possibility. Anyone with an idea and the desire to learn code can create a solution for any type of problem. This becomes the result of the strategies above, with many other examples already prevalent today. As women become more represented in the sphere of computational activity, we will see new disruptive ideas and more immersive ways to engage other females in STEM roles.

Overlaying these exponential concepts with exposing females to STEM creates a promising future. I can hardly wait for women to take center stage in computer science. Studies show that women outperform men in computer science and companies with women on the executive team financially outperform their peers. Soon enough, we will see a natural shift to females based solely on the increased number of connected devices and access to computational learning. Along with that shift will arise a leveled advertising approach to males and females. With the rise of data philanthropy and the natural inclination of females to add meaning to their work, there will be an expansion of opportunities that create a magnet for women.

These shifts will naturally occur, however, activating the exponential theories methodically and with purpose will accelerate the proliferation of women in STEM. I’m still vetting out the journey and experimenting with these concepts and how they can be applied. I welcome passionate advocates to join me.

Melissa Unsell-Smith

Melissa Unsell-Smith


President and Founder of Rectify a woman-led tech company that leverages machine learning to protect consumer identities when data is shared with third parties, Melissa Unsell-Smith is an automation expert who solves challenging dilemmas involved with protecting private data. Originator of “privacy-enabled artificial intelligence,” she has developed best practices for data privacy and good data stewardship. In her free time, Melissa is an avid volunteer focusing on creating legacy projects for data stewardship, as well as women in tech and the arts. Melissa currently serves on the Board of Girls Inc., the Advisory Board for She Code Connect, and is the Chairwoman for the Classical Music Institute. Connect with Melissa on LinkedIn and on Instagram @melissaunsellsmith.

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