One-Third of College STEM Majors Switch Fields Before Graduation, Women-Led Startups Face Unique Challenges, Too Few K-12 Public Schools Teach Computer Science and Topics Such As Cybersecurity, Ending Salary Negotiations as a Way to Eliminate Gender Bias

One-Third of College STEM Majors Switch Fields Before Graduation

A recently released study by RTI International found that although almost a quarter of high-performing students began pursuing a bachelor's degree in a STEM major between 2003 and 2009, nearly a third of them had transferred out of STEM fields by spring of 2009. Xianglei Chen, a research education analyst at RTI, noted, “In light of the nation's need to build a strong STEM workforce to compete in the global economy, it is important to understand why college students are leaving STEM majors. Our results indicate that students' intensity of STEM coursework in the first year and their performance in STEM courses may have played an important role in their decision to switch majors.” The study noted a distinction between low-performing students, who left STEM majors because they dropped out of college, and high-performing students, who mostly left to pursue non-STEM majors.

The authors attribute the high degree of STEM attrition to the fact that the students didn’t have a sufficient background in STEM when they entered college. By not building early momentum in STEM coursework, they suggest, students may abandon pursuit of a STEM degree later on, especially if they are not performing well. “An increasing portion of students who leave STEM majors are top performers who might have made valuable additions to the STEM workforce had they stayed in STEM fields," noted Chen. “Results from this study will be useful for guiding policies to ensure that more students remain in STEM fields.”

NCWIT offers a number of resources to encourage students, particularly women, to stick with their computing education, including the case study titled “How Can Encouragement Increase Persistence in Computing? One Professor’s Approach to Broadening Participation in Computing.”

Women-Led Startups Face Unique Challenges

A recent article in The Atlantic highlighted the ongoing challenges for women in the startup world. Despite the fact that the majority of college students are women and roughly half of all workplace managers are female, the percentage of women who are leading startups remains much lower. According to research by the Kauffman Foundation, women account for only about 16 percent of employers, and for only 10 percent of founders of high-growth firms. Possible — and hotly debated — reasons for this disparity include that women are more risk-averse than men, that women prefer to prioritize their families over long startup hours, and that the culture of startups is simply too macho to attract women. Less debatable, however, is the research indicating that female entrepreneurs have a harder time raising capital. The Kauffman Foundation found that for male entrepreneurs, “60 percent of startup funding was raised from outside sources, such as bank loans or angel investors, compared to 48 percent for women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs are recipients of just 19 percent of angel funding and even less of venture capital funding.” Similarly, a 2014 report by Babson College found that companies with a female CEO only received 3 percent of total venture capital dollars in the previous two years. Lakshmi Balachandra, a former venture capitalist who is now a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and was involved with the study, believes the explanation may lie in the fact that venture capitalists tend to invest in people who are similar to them — and 94 percent of venture capitalists are men. She suggests that one solution would be to breed more female venture capitalists and to keep existing ones from quitting. Another is that male investors need to do a better job of finding women entrepreneurs and rely less on traditional male-bonding types of activities to pick their entrepreneurs.

More details on traits that may contribute to the unequal gender composition of successful startup founders can be found in the resource article titled “Which gender differences matter for high-tech entrepreneurship?” on the NCWIT website.

Too Few K-12 Public Schools Teach Computer Science and Related Topics Such As Cybersecurity

A recent Peninsula Press article discussed the growing need for cybersecurity professionals in the U.S. and the challenges on how to meet that demand. According to a March 2014 report by Burning Glass Technologies in Boston, the demand for cybersecurity professionals has increased 3.5 times faster than demand for other IT jobs and about 12 times faster than for all other jobs over the past five years. Yet more than 209,000 cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. are unfilled, according to a Peninsula Press analysis of numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although having too few students completing STEM degrees at the college level is a factor, some say the problem begins earlier, with not enough K-12 public schools teaching computer science and related topics such as cybersecurity. According to Virginia Lehmkuhl-Dakhwe, director of the Jay Pinson STEM Education Center at San Jose State University, and her teaching team, exposing students to computing education early, and then introducing cybersecurity concepts, is key to training enough experts to meet demand. “[Cybersecurity] may not be something that K-12 educators think of as essential, or at the forefront of their minds to integrate into a STEM program, which typically involves just robotics or programming,” Lehmkuhl-Dakhwe noted. “The number of jobs in information security is going to grow tenfold in the next 10 years,” she added. “We have to do much more if we want to meet that demand, at the university level as well as K-12.” In addition to encouraging schools to adopt cybersecurity training in their curricula, educators also recognize the need to do more to generate and maintain interest in the field of computer science among girls.

NWCIT’s resources to help encourage students to pursue computer-related fields of study include “Top 10 Ways of Recruiting High School Women into Your Computing Classes” and “Why Should Young People Consider Careers in Information Technology?

Ending Salary Negotiations as a Way to Eliminate Gender Bias

In the ongoing challenge to eliminate gender bias in the workforce, especially in the technology field, Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao has taken a new and interesting tack: ending salary negotiations during the hiring process. The goal of the initiative is to avoid rewarding people who are better at negotiating — generally men — with more compensation, thereby providing a more level playing field for all potential hires. A recent Fast Company article explored reaction to Pao’s announcement, which came on the heels of her losing a gender-discrimination lawsuit against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last month. Although the individuals interviewed for the article generally applauded Pao’s decision, there remained some skepticism and uncertainty about how easily Reddit will be able to carry out the initiative.

As an example, Vaibhav Mallya, founder of OfferLetter.io, which provides engineers and tech workers with negotiating and career advice, believes that if Reddit wants to eliminate unfair pay practices it needs transparency, meaning that every new hire needs to be able to see what others in the company are making. “If Reddit makes a single offer, it will be what they feel is fair, but because there’s no transparency, there’s no broadcasting of what actually is going on,” he noted. “I can’t actually trust that. What does fair mean in that context? There’s a lot that needs to be done before general inequity in the landscape can be resolved."

Another question is what Reddit will do if it finds that pay disparity already exists for the candidate being interviewed. The company will have to go a "step further" in its hiring process and evaluate whether seemingly objective criteria, like past salary, should have an effect on the offer, noted Noreen A. Farrell, executive director at Equal Rights Advocates, a women’s rights advocacy organization based in San Francisco. "If objective criteria closely tied to job qualifications and job performance cannot explain pay differentials between some men and women doing the same job, Reddit should equalize salaries of those employees, through pay or other benefits," she added.

Tools that NCWIT offers to help organizations attract and retain women include “Supervising-in-a-Box Series: Employee Recruitment/Selection” and “How Can Reducing Unconscious Bias Increase Women's Success in IT? Avoiding Gender Bias in Recruitment/Selection Processes.”