Dartmouth College students

Dartmouth College is blazing the way for diversity in STEM

If Mark Zuckerberg was serious about improving diversity at Facebook, he could do it. Just like Dartmouth College have done in their engineering school.

There’s lots of talk in the tech industry about improving diversity in technical roles, which is absolutely fantastic and I hope it continues. It’s really exciting when organisations are actually effecting real change in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by taking concrete steps to increase diversity.

Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth

Dartmouth College

This is why we should celebrate the achievements of Dartmouth College and their Thayer School of Engineering, because they’ve managed to achieve nearly 50% gender balance in junior and senior engineering classes.

It sounds magical, but Dartmouth College have taken quantifiable steps towards encouraging more women into engineering, and keeping them there!

Dartmouth have done this  by implementing successful programmes that deal with the barrier to entry, which is mainly students thinking they don’t have enough experience, and the fact that the faculty is composed mainly of men.

They have focused not just on recruiting more female students, but a more diverse range of students in general – male and female, and from ethnic backgrounds that better represent the diversity of the college as a whole.

Female engineer

The american college system

The american college system is slightly different to the UK university system in that undergraduates choose their ‘major’ subject, while they also must complete mandatory modules in other subjects. This means that they’re exposed to a variety of subjects at degree level, and they can also change their major.

This makes it particularly important to encourage students to major in computer science at college level. Unfortunately, lots of students can be put off doing so if they think they lack experience in making things.

Dartmouth College has encouraged more students to major in computer science by providing skills support groups to help students learn more practical skills. These workshops ensure that many students, who wouldn’t have considered themselves ‘engineer material’, do not get left behind.

They’ve also purposely recruited more female teaching assistants from their senior classes.

Dartmouth have been able to do this is because they’re serious about equalising their engineering department, and have systematically worked to achieve real change.

The pipeline problem

Companies frequently fall back on blaming a lack of applicants for their skewed diversity statistics. At first glance, this seems reasonable, right?

A pipeline problem is a stock argument for why tech companies are struggling with their diversity targets, so I want to unpick this.

When we say there’s a pipeline problem in an industry, we mean that there are not enough candidates with the appropriate educational and professional background to fill the roles available.

To say that there is a lack of candidates who suit the requirements is tantamount to businesses throwing their hands up and blaming the government, which provides education for most of the country.

The plot thickens

But I have a question. Why are there more men being employed as programmers and developers than women, when both demographics receive exactly the same education (in theory)?

If a pipeline problem were truly the case, then surely a large number of men are in employment who do not suit the requirements for technical roles.

If men and women were employed in equal numbers, but there was still a lack of qualified applicants, then that would be a pipeline problem.

This isn’t happening – numbers vary, but most people agree that technical roles in the industry are distributed roughly as 20% women to 80% men.

That difference is staggering, when you consider than women hold 57% of all bachelor degrees in the US.

This means that women are being systematically discouraged from pursuing the hard sciences at higher education.

How we discourage women from pursuing fulfilling careers

Our stereotypes and role models, which psychologists agree are powerful influences in forming our identity, are pushing women out of important industries by making them think that technology is not for them.

While women are not literally barred from entering the tech field as engineers, as they would have been in the 19th century, the mental, emotional and social obstacles they must overcome are still huge.

The reason that Facebook, Google and the like have not been able increase their diversity levels since first pledging to change is because their hearts aren’t in it.

Victorian lady photograph

Image: gt_hawk63, Creative Commons

The locus of power

Power used to be in the hands of white middle and upper class men in finance, politics and business. This is a very small number of the total population when you think about it.

These were generally people who had inherited property and other assets, with access to a thriving network of privileged others, which enabled them to continue the family line of success. The social structure was extremely rigid and entrenched.

This is still true to some extent, but now technology is slowly wrenching some of that power away into the hands of very young, upper and middle class white males of a slightly different variety – and we enter the Age of the Nerd.

Power is now becoming concentrated in the hands of those who can understand and manipulate technology.

If we think we belong to a particular group and it has power, we instinctively want to limit the number of people who may enter our group, out of a fear that our power may be diluted.

gentleman at the beach

Image: Rob Gallop, Creative Commons

The danger of this attitude

But this is a terrible myth. Acting out of fear and insecurity only ultimately leads to our destruction.

If this trend of holding on to power is allowed to continue unchecked, the tech industry will start to become ill, just like the historically male-dominated institutions of finance, business and politics.

We now have progress and profit for their own sake in business. Financial institutions crippled nations in the 2008 financial crisis. Politicians are routinely exposed as liars, cheats and frauds, merely pawns in the media machine.

Soon, technology will become driven inward by its own success, seeking development and profit for their own sake, rather than allowing itself to be enriched by what will ultimately benefit society and its members.

The prevalence of the macho spirit, of the winning at all costs mentality, costs society greatly.

That’s why we should all take a leaf out of Dartmouth College’s book, and pledge ourselves to creating real change. Everyone benefits, and we can contribute to a better world.

Are you totally inspired to go into tech now? Find out why you definitely can learn to code

About the author

Catherine Heath

I’m a B2B freelance tech blogger and content writer. I have a thing for psychology, diversity, tech and startups. Learning to code.

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