Is the STEM Talent Pipeline Really the Problem

Update (3/30/2016): Additional statements by Rev. Jesse Jackson added to the story


By Michael Nam

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM,” President Obama explained during the 2015 White House Science Fair on Monday. “We want to make sure everybody’s involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs as well, and that’s been a theme of this science fair.”

The president stood with the young science fair winners as he updated the press on $240 million in new pledges to his initiatives to improve STEM education in the U.S., $90 million of which are allocated directly to improve opportunities for underrepresented young people.

Much of the White House’s program, called ‘Educate to Innovate‘, calls for improving the STEM pipeline from an early age to moment of hire with four key points:

Focusing on underrepresented groups

Exposing girls and young women to STEM fields

Setting the standard with exceptional role models

Promoting tech inclusion

Silicon Valley businesses have often excused themselves about the lack of diversity in their leadership and recruitment because of the “pipeline problem“, blaming a lack of readily available talent from underrepresented populations.

“There is a talent surplus in this room,” Rev. Jesse Jackson told an audience of 25 tech companies during a Rainbow Push Coalition summit on diversifying Silicon Valley. “We come in today to partner, to two-way tradenot to destroy but to realize the American dream for all.”

“There is a ‘right now’ pipeline of talent – more Blacks and Latinos are graduating from computer science fields that are being hired. Companies can find, and hire them, if they look in the right places – not just at Harvard, but Howard. Not just at MIT, but at Morehouse,” Rev. Jackson recently told DiversityInc. “And let’s not forget that well over 50% of the workforce in most tech companies are non-tech–people that work in sales, finance, government relations and HR; administration – there is ‘right now’ talent among Black and Latino communities to take these jobs.”

Rev. Jackson will be the keynote speaker at the unveiling of the 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity on April 23, 2015, in New York City.

Tech-heavy businesses like BASF, Northrop GrummanandNielsen, companies on the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 and members of Change the Equation, the non-profit group set up to mobilize the business community in order to tackle the issue of STEM education, have made big strides by recognizing that there are already diverse, qualified workers already in existence for these tech jobs.

Still, while initiatives like Educate to Innovate and Change the Equation are important, for the underrepresentation of women in tech, the issue is further complicated by systemic bias in science and technology fields. Whether it’s Microsoft’s CEO saying women should rely on karma for raises or women seeing bias in training and sponsorship at tech firms, the issue of systemic attitudes towards gender persists.

Psychologist Joan C. Williams doesn’t buy the pipeline as the main culprit behind the absence of women and, particularly, women of color. Based on her research with co-authors Katherine W. Phillips and Erika V. Hall, she writes in Harvard Business Review, “bias, not pipeline issues or personal choices, pushes women out of science and that bias plays out differently depending on a woman’s race or ethnicity.”

The five specific biases she found that women in the sciences reported:

Having to prove themselves repeatedly with “their successes discounted, their expertise questioned.”

Being required to walk the “tightrope” between acting masculine to prove competency but maintaining expected femininity

Having “their commitment and competence” questioned after having children

Struggling with conflict between differing generations of women

Being isolated because they “feel that socially engaging” with colleagues might damage perceptions of their competence (particularly an issue among Black and Latina respondents)

These implicit biases find support in studies that shows both men and women on science faculties favor a fictional application’s male name over a female one with identical credentials in terms of hiring for positions, or that when employers were only given physical characteristics, women were “half as likely to be hired as men, because they were (erroneously) perceived as less talented for the arithmetic task: Both men and women expected women to perform worse.”

“It’s so tempting the attribute the paucity of women in STEM to pipeline problems or personal choices,” Williams said. “But it’s time to listen to women scientists: they think the issue’s gender bias, and anincreasing amount of research supports thatview.”

“Diversifying the workforce of tech companies must be INTENTIONAL, not just ‘aspirational’,” saysRev. Jackson. “Yes, let’s build a pipeline – but not just from Delhi, but from our HBCU’s [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and up the road in SF and Oakland. But it must be a real pipeline to jobs and employment, and not a diversion.”

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