Diversity in STEM has come a long way in 20 years, but the journey from where we were to where we are now was far from smooth sailing.
Looking back over 20 years of STEM from a diversity and inclusion point of view has been an interesting experience.
One of the earliest parts of my research actually went beyond 20 years, all the way back to 1997, when Dr Anita Borg spoke about a challenge that she had put to a large conference two years previously.
Borg was an American computer scientist, who was widely recognised both for her skills in technology and for her work on behalf of women in computing.
The challenge she had set in 1995 was for the US National Science Foundation to “use 50/50 by 2020 as a mantra” to bring help gender equality to the STEM industry.
But while great women in STEM such as Borg were calling for change, there was very little work in the areas of diversity and inclusion until much later. Even then, statistics suggest we’re still a long way off.
The 2000s and beyond show a patchwork quilt of good and bad that brings us to where we are now, where diversity and inclusion have become key business objectives for many top leaders.
But, while we have come a long way in 20 years, there are still many more mountains to climb as we look ahead to the next 20 years of STEM.
The old boys’ club
Many players within STEM fields would argue that the current push for diversity and inclusion only really started in the last decade or so, even if there were those who spoke out earlier than that.
Glitch CEO Anil Dash wrote an essay back in 2007, when he was co-founder of social media analytics tool ThinkUp, entitled ‘The Old Boys Club is for Losers’. In this essay, Dash called out the lazy responses as to why there is such a lack of diversity in tech: “Those of you who are defending this status quo are defending a culture of failure.”
So scarce was this mindset at the time, that Dash told TechCrunch he thought publishing this essay would be the end of his tech career.
One man Dash called out in his essay was Eric Meyer, an organiser for An Event Apart, a tech conference for UX and front-end experts. At the time, Meyer said that in terms of having more women speakers at tech conferences, he believed that “diversity is not of itself important”.
However, the years that followed saw a 2009 study by the American Sociological Association which found that diversity was among the most important predictors of a business’ sales revenue and a 2012 McKinsey report that connected diversity to better financial performance.
While these business cases for diversity were starting to sprout, darker issues were emerging.
In 2012, Ellen Pao rose to fame when she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which she had joined in 2005.
In her lawsuit, Pao claimed that she was let go from the firm for claiming that one of its former partners had sexually harassed her and that she had seen a number of instances of unfair treatment against women by men in the firm.
Despite the court ruling in favour of the VC, the case sparked an international debate on the treatment of women in VC and in tech, particularly when it came to the lack of leadership roles given to women and minorities.
Switching on the spotlight
As diversity became more topical, a harsher light was turned on STEM, with several reports highlighting just how bad the problem was.
In 2012, an international Harvey Nash report found that a shocking 93pc of CIOs who responded were men, with 35pc confirming that there were no women in IT management roles in their organisations. The following year, a report from the UN Broadband Commission’s Working Group on Broadband and Gender found a significant and pervasive gap in ICT, with 200m fewer women online than men worldwide.
It was a bad couple of years for Big Tech too. In 2013, software engineer and diversity advocate Tracy Chou wrote a wrote a Medium post that challenged tech employers to reveal the number of women engineers they had on staff, demanding that these figures not be hidden away.
The following May, protests outside Google HQ in California criticised the lack of minorities in boardrooms and in executive roles in Silicon Valley companies.
This led to a flurry of diversity reports from various major tech players starting with Google but also including Twitter, Facebook (now Meta), Pinterest, Amazon, Apple and LinkedIn. The reports highlighted what many already knew to be the case: these companies had an overwhelming majority of men, most of which were white.
While these reports made for grim reading, it was also the start of real change. Dragging these stark statistics out into the spotlight gave this massive systemic problem more attention than ever.
In the midst of all this discourse, campaigns to make the industry a better place for women and minorities were starting to grow. By 2014, Silicon Republic’s own Women Invent campaign had already entered its second year.
Distractingly sexy campaigns
As the world moved into 2015, the importance of diversity and inclusion had finally started to be acknowledged by the major industry players and many started to take action so they could at least show they were trying to address the problem.
At the beginning of the year, chip giant Intel announced a $300m investment to improve its workplace diversity and a few months later, it launched at $125m fund to support tech start-ups run by women and minorities and a further $5m to boost diversity in STEM education.
Meanwhile, Salesforce spent $3m to adjust its salary sheet, providing equal pay to women and men throughout the company
While these moves were all incredibly positive, the needle was still pretty static at the major tech giants in Silicon Valley. Major funding was being pumped in to solve the problem, but it had been ignored for so long that systemic, deep-rooted gender biases were proving much harder to undo.
In June 2015, biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt caused a storm when he made controversial comments about women in science.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry,” he said.
Hunt subsequently resigned from his post at University College London, but his remarks sparked the birth of the #DistractinglySexy hashtag on Twitter, with many women scientists highlighting the absurdity of Hunt’s comments.
Shortly after this, another hashtag was born: #ILookLikeAnEngineer. This one began following an ad for tech company OneLogin, which featured one of its software engineers, Isis Wenger (now Isis Anchalee). Following the publication of the billboard advert, it began to garner a lot of attention online, particularly from men who challenged the notion that Wenger was indeed a software engineer and not a paid-for model.
This led to women in STEM once again taking to social media to highlight their existence in the field.
The years that followed saw more campaigns and initiatives to either improve diversity in STEM or to highlight the work of women that had been hidden for so long.
Dublin City University renamed six of its campus buildings to honour pioneering women in the fields of computing, crystallography and astronomy. A Women of NASA Lego proposal led to several women hidden figures being recognised in Lego form. And at the end of 2016, the Royal Irish Academy added portraits of notable women to its walls for the first time in 230 years.
While all of these steps were pointing in the right direction, it continued to feel like two steps forward and one step back. By the end of 2017, a stark report from the World Economic Forum suggested that the economic gender gap wouldn’t be closed for another 217 years.
Going beyond gender
2018 started a little more positively, with Iceland officially making gender wage gaps illegal. This was also the year in which UK-based organisations with 250 employees or more were obliged to publish and report specific figures about their gender pay gap.
But attention was also being drawn to where the spotlight was not shining – other areas of diversity. Beyond gender, questions were being raised around neurodiversity, racial and ethnic diversity as well as increased accessibility in tech.
At the beginning of the 2018, the Pew Research Center published a report on equity and diversity in the STEM workplace and found that 62pc of black respondents in STEM jobs said they had experienced workplace discrimination because of their race.
In March of that year, a study published in Nature found those from the LGBTQ+ community were more likely to abandon their STEM studies than their heterosexual classmates. While the study itself did not explain why this was the case, those who researched LGBTQ+ inclusion in education believed marginalisation and isolation played a big part.
The summer of 2018 also saw major racial discrimination cases for tech giants, with Tesla factory workers reporting threats, humiliation and barriers to promotion and Uber’s then head of HR accused of dismissing internal allegations of racial discrimination.
But it wasn’t all bad news in 2018. Intel hit its internal diversity goal and made plans to push further. It was also the year that IBM’s Pathways to Technology (P-Tech) model came to Ireland, which aimed to strengthen STEM education and encourage more diversity within the industry.
“A lot of countries talk about STEM, and about diversity and inclusion in our education system, in business and in society, but P-Tech is a practical and forward-thinking programme that invests in students and their communities and can make a real difference,” said IBM Ireland country general manager Deborah Threadgold.
“Not only does it give these students a path to technology careers without necessarily having to spend four years at university, it also supports the rethinking of hiring practices to make them more inclusive.”
In terms of making the tech world more inclusive, 2018 also saw the creation of new emojis to better represent people with disabilities and a new wheelchair accessible navigation feature was added to Google Maps.
Where are we now?
In an ongoing theme for diversity and inclusion, the last few years have seen many positive steps in the right direction, while plenty of reports show we still have a long way to go.
There was much excitement around the first all-woman spacewalk on the ISS in 2019, for example, but this originally had to be cancelled due to ill-fitting suits for women astronauts.
Despite the setbacks, efforts to bring greater gender diversity to STEM have slowly improved over the last decade and many of the major tech companies have seen this as a huge trend changing the industry as a whole.
Last year, Amazon Web Services (AWS) launched a new programme to encourage students aged 12 to 13 – especially girls – to consider a career in tech.
Olivia McEvoy, inclusion and diversity lead at Twitter, also told SiliconRepublic.com the increased appetite for diversity, inclusion and equity has been a key highlight for her in the last 20 years.
“That’s why we’ve set a bold vision for workforce representation by 2025 and have doubled down on inclusion and diversity programs to accelerate progress,” she said. “By 2025, we aim for our global workforce to be at least 50pc women and in the US, at least a quarter of our workforce to be underrepresented minorities.”
Fidelity Investments Ireland boasts a gender-balanced technology leadership team and its SVP head of technology, Lorna Martyn, said the company has an “unrelenting focus” on moving the needle for greater inclusion in STEM careers. “This is activated by strong partnerships in education and advocacy for female, differently abled and diverse talent.”
In the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the STEM world both positives and negatives when it comes to diversity. While remote working can remove barriers for workers with disabilities, the pandemic has also led to ‘shecession’ according to a PwC report earlier this year.
Outside of Covid-19, there continues to be good work being done such as a neurodiversity toolkit, a Race Equality Guide for Hiring and a new disability info service to make hiring more inclusive in Ireland.
But alongside this, there continues to be a ‘one step back’ caveat. In July 2020, legal action was taken against Facebook by a manager and two job applicants, alleging that black employees are discriminated against.
A report in March of this year found that autistic workers in Ireland aren’t getting enough support from employers. And Google continues to face controversy around its ethical AI team, which started with the dismissal of Dr Timnit Gebru.
While diversity and inclusion within the STEM sector has come a long way in 20 years, this short walk through history shows that we still have many hills to climb.
Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.