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Erika Jefferson is CEO of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE),  an organization focused on
empowering women to bridge the gap in science, technology, engineering, and math( STEM), through career and entrepreneurial development training, supportive networking and professional mentoring. 

The holidays are now upon us, and as we prepare for the start of a new year, my hope for 2019 is that significant strides are made in improving the STEM landscape from the beginning to the end of the pipeline.

Millions of dollars are being poured into early childhood programs, while programs to ensure these same children stay employed after graduation go lacking.

Despite significant focus and efforts by organizations around the country, the number of women and minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) remains depressingly low. Worse are the numbers of women and minorities leaving the field after five years, with some estimates as high as 40 percent. Is this the workforce we are preparing today’s children for?

Globally, we are still struggling to attract and retain this demographic in these fields. Corporations are pouring millions of dollars into initiatives to stop what has been called the “leaky pipeline.” In 2018, we did have more attention on this problem. However, the change is occurring much too slowly. The reasons that diversity and inclusivity have not taken root have not changed over time. Both women and minorities cite feelings of isolation, mistreatment by colleagues/management, and lack of opportunities for advancement as the reasons they leave. The real challenge appears to be how to change the STEM landscape, not just for people working right now, but for future generations who will begin their careers in the next 20 years. There are three key actions that organizations that are serious about real change in STEM are currently taking.

Hire STEM professionals in human resources

In many organizations, recruiting is the most junior position that they hire. While most are hardworking, dedicated professionals, many are right out of school with no STEM education at all. The likelihood of recent liberal arts graduates being able to decipher and understand a science or engineering resume or even the unexpressed needs of the hiring manager is very low. There is no way to know how many great candidates were discarded by well-meaning recruiters who did not understand a diverse STEM candidate’s resume or whose implicit bias caused them to overlook someone who did not meet all of the job requirements but would be a great hire. To combat this, companies have begun hiring seasoned scientists and engineers to work alongside experienced talent professionals in HR. The benefits of this are many, including ensuring recruiters have a better understanding of technical concepts when evaluating applicants, especially since technical types are not known for their writing abilities.

Increase diversity in STEM senior leadership

Women and minorities still make up a fraction of senior leaders in STEM industries. Too many women and minorities are stuck in mid-level roles, not gaining the experience or exposure to be considered for senior roles. An unintentional side effect is that the lack of career movement in these groups results in less upward movement by younger employees, who then become frustrated and leave their jobs or the field altogether. More must be done to increase diversity in the senior ranks. The existing STEM landscape will not change without significant effort and attention. Companies have to get serious about having more qualified women and minorities leading businesses and sitting on corporate boards. There are many organizations working to address these issues, such as Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), IT Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), and Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE). We are focused on the development of pathways to success for our members through mentorship and guidance at all career stages, from university through corporate, academia, and government leadership.

Increase diversity in STEM entrepreneurship

Finally, we need more women and minorities to helm companies they created. Today, the vast majority of STEM-related firms are founded by men. This is starting to change slightly in tech. However, the opportunities for professional and financial support to assist underrepresented groups is woefully lacking. We should be encouraging diverse employees to start businesses that provide goods and services that are needed by these organizations. There are government and corporate contacts that specify diverse suppliers, yet go unmet because they don’t exist. Besides creating development programs, some companies are working to spur innovation and entrepreneurship by providing funding and other resources to these targeted groups.

While these actions alone won’t guarantee that the STEM landscape will be equitable immediately, with enough time and resources, it can be ready for future generations.

BWISE also work with schools and universities to help guide the next generation of black female scientists and engineers.


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