The STEM Pipeline: The Role of Small Liberal Arts Colleges

Making news this past May was the release of employee diversity information at large tech firms, including Google, LinkedIn and Yahoo, which indicated, not that surprisingly, that these Silicon Valley companies employed primarily men (60-70%). The news was more discouraging when the data was disaggregated into tech-related and leadership positions, with the percentage of women dropping even lower. For example, at Yahoo, only 15% of technology and 23% of leadership positions were held by women.

Google was the first of the technology firms to release diversity data, stating that: “We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues.” Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.

According to a 2010 AAUW report Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, fewer than one percent of high school girls express an interest in majoring in computer science. One way to increase the number of women in technology and leadership positions at technology firms is to increase the number of high school girls interested in majoring in computer science. Google and its partners want to do just that.

On June 19, Google announced a $50M initiative, Made with Code, “with the simple and singular focus of bringing more girls into the coding fold.” Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, and the most senior female executive at Google stated: “Coding is a new literacy and it gives people the potential to create, innovate and quite literally change the world. We’ve got to show all girls that computer science is an important part of their future, and that it’s a foundation to pursue their passions, no matter what field they want to enter. Made with Code is a great step toward doing that.”

Google is joined by over two dozen supporting organizations, including the American School Counselor Association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Girls Inc., Girl Scouts of the USA, MIT Media Lab, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Google Vice President Megan Smith says “Our industry has lots of stereotypes, including the notion that coding means sitting at a computer alone. We hope to show girls that coding is fun. But there’s also the simple fact that supply and demand is not working. There are millions of jobs out there going begging.” The idea of Made with Code is to show young girls, through events, workshops and “girl-coding parties” that the skill of coding and programming is not just sitting at a computer all day, but instead is linked to diverse and socially positive activities and careers.

Results of research carried out by Google identified encouragement and exposure to computer science as a leading factor influencing a girl’s decision to choose the field. Influencing factors included social encouragement, self-perception that computer science skills can be translated into a career, structured (graded) and unstructured (after-school) academic exposure to computer science coursework, and increasing the perception that computer science has broad and diverse applications, especially with a positive societal impact.

Here’s where liberal arts colleges naturally fit into the process. Research results from The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has indicated the role that small and mid-size liberal arts colleges have on strengthening the STEM pipeline. Students in STEM majors at independent colleges persist and succeed at high rates while undergraduates, and are successful in STEM careers post-graduation.

This Google initiative is an opportunity for colleges that already have a proven track record of training and supporting STEM students to expand and strengthen outreach in computer science, coding and programming with local middle and high schools and non-profit organizations. There is great potential, by reaching out to a Made with Code supporting organization, such as a local Girls, Inc. or Girls Scouts group, to positively impact girls and young women at a time when encouragement and exposure to computer science, and to positive computer science role models, has been shown to be crucial.

It’s proven that small and mid-size liberal arts colleges can support and effectively train STEM students once enrolled. Doing all we can to develop and sustain interest in computer science with middle and high school girls will help keep these girls in the pipeline at a critical time.

One thought on “The STEM Pipeline: The Role of Small Liberal Arts Colleges

  1. There is a difference between “STEM” and “computer science”. Gender ratios are nearly equal in most sciences and math, but are very skewed in computer science and engineering. I have yet to see evidence that liberal arts schools do anything to rebalance computer science and engineering gender balances. If there is evidence for it, please share it with the CS education community!

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