It’s no secret that most STEM occupations in the U.S. continued to be dominated by white male workers.
A 2018 Pew Research report found that Blacks make up 9% of the STEM workforce while Hispanics make up only 7%. Further, while women held a high percentage of jobs in some STEM fields like Life Sciences, representation was low in core fields like engineering (14%) and actually on the decline in computers with only 25% representation.
Interestingly, the study also found that many participants agreed one of the root causes for this underrepresentation is because girls, Blacks, and Hispanics lack encouragement to pursue STEM from a young age. June Sugiyama shares that perspective and has been working aggressively in her position as Director at Vodafone Americas Foundation to reverse this dynamic.
Vodafone Foundation supports projects around the world that use technology to deliver social impact. A focus on women and girls in tech has been a recent emphasis of the Americas arm of the organization and one that Sugiyama is particularly passionate about.
She led off our conversation by saying that while many people are attacking this problem, it’s most often done by investing money into STEM or coding classes to try and increase the numbers of girl students. While this brings necessary resources to programs that can open pathways for girls to pursue tech, Sugiyama believes there’s more that can be done.
For her part, she wants to better understand the root causes of the lack of representation and diversity in tech so that the Foundation could move the needle in a more meaningful way on behalf of girls. Her strategy is then to fund those efforts that have the best chance to create a ripple effect, influencing or guiding others to a more impactful way to support girls in tech.
One example is a new report called Ready to Lead conducted by Girls Leadership that the Foundation supported. It studied teachers and young girls of color from around the country to learn how to better identify and support the next generation of female leaders.
The report found that while Black and Latinx girls feel prepared and are eager to step into leadership roles, many of the adults and teachers around them fail to recognize and build on this potential. In fact, many of the assets these girls point to as evidence of leadership skills, are sometimes viewed as deterrents to leadership by the adults in their lives. Additionally, some girls felt they lacked proper role models that could mentor and guide them towards leadership and growth.
Sugiyama says she identifies with the results. A teacher earlier in her career, she’s familiar with the many studies that demonstrate how teachers teach to male students by default because of ingrained social biases. The findings of this report echo many of these same tendencies for teachers even today.
The report itself is what Sugiyama envisions as the type of effort that can help identify root causes and create a ripple effect for girls in tech. She believes that tearing down some of the barriers to leadership for these girls will bring more of them into technology study and fields. By reframing what these girls are capable of achieving, more teachers and parents will support them in their interests in technology.
Importantly, she says this is more than just coding. Although coding brings opportunities in tech closer to girls, a program that involves families, mentors, and communities is a more holistic approach that assures continuity for girls as they progress through school and into their careers.
This makes sense as the world continues to evolve and technology becomes fundamental to so many different aspects of how we live and work. While computer science is important, Sugiyama wants to see more girls – and girls of color – enter all types of technology fields as a way to raise their leadership and economic prospects.
Beyond this leadership research project, Sugiyama shared a number of other ways the Vodafone Foundation is actively involved in leveraging tech in support of women. One is a program that helps alleviate the effects of domestic violence for survivors and seeks to prevent violence against women. Another is designed to help young women be safe on college campuses. The foundation also supports a number of competitions that encourage young women to devise tech solutions for social challenges.
Vodafone itself is putting its money where its mouth is. The company that funds the Foundation has made commitments to increase the number of women in technology, increase the number of women in leadership within the company, and to help educate young girls using technology.
Ultimately, it is this type of fundamental rethinking of the challenges to girls in tech that will make a difference. By first understanding the deep and overlapping barriers for our girls, we can uproot them and open up a clear path to a future career. It requires a coordinated effort by advocates and allies, real and actionable data, and a commitment to change that will keep our girls supported from a young age through to adulthood.