Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an area of the world with more female technology entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the world. Most people would not guess that the Middle East has a greater representation of female tech entrepreneurs than Europe or North America. While the gulf nations are successful because they heavily support workforce development and training in these areas, they also benefit from different stereotypes when it comes to women in technology. In the U.S., technology is associated with men whereas in the Middle East occupations that are heavily based inside the company or can be done from home are viewed as feminine.
This reminded me of some of the keys goals of the NJSPN’s workforce priority group because we are committed not only to growing the STEM workforce in NJ, but also to ensuring that the growth is equitable. Unfortunately, a recent paper in the Educational Researcher shows that students of color are more likely than their White peers to leave their post-secondary majors in STEM. Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb, lead author on the study, tested national data from the Beginning Postsecondary Study (BPS) to determine if this gap in persistence was also significant for students majoring in non-STEM fields. When testing non-STEM subjects, the researchers found that other social background variables, like academic preparation, helped to explain the racial gap in persistence. However, when the model tested these variables for STEM majors, these characteristics could not explain why students of color left STEM majors. While this study was not able to determine why students of color leave STEM at a higher rate, other research has pointed to some important factors that could be at play, like negative stereotypes that are ubiquitous in our culture. When these stereotypes are present in the learning environment, students tend to feel less included and engaged in their major.
The lack of diversity is not only a problem for equity and inclusion, but for the economy. The workforce desperately needs more STEM workers, and the demand is only predicted to grow over the next 10 years. Policy makers and advocates are even more concerned about this workforce shortage because of the onset of a phenomenon called “the future of work.” While there is no singular definition about what the “future of work” will entail, most researchers believe it is the intersection of several world trends like emerging technology, climate change, globalization, and demographic shifts. All of these factors are believed to change what the workforce will look like, including the quality and wages of jobs, the way benefits are social protections are administered, and the composition of the labor force.
Rapidly changing technology may displace many low-skilled jobs, but will mean many more opportunities for STEM workers. This shift will be the most pronounced for engineering and computing to develop and maintain artificial intelligence and electronic hardware. Therefore, the New Jersey STEM Pathways Network’s Workforce Priority group aims to increase awareness among students, educators, and policy makers about emerging pathways available in STEM. Right now, teachers are integrating more technology and critical thinking into their curriculum so students can be ready to adapt to the changes ahead. Apprenticeships, where high school students and adults in the workforce get targeted on the job training, mean that the educational pathway might look different than how it does today. Individuals working in what we now consider non-STEM jobs may require more technology skills for their day-today work in the near future.
These rapid changes to the workforce represent a huge opportunity to increase the diversity of our STEM workforce. Often, I hear policy makers and advocates conceptualize educational and workforce gaps in STEM as related to a lack of exposure to STEM or a “deficit” of skills. As we experiment with new pathways and innovate new pathways to the STEM workforce, we must ensure that these programs do not reinforce bias and stereotypes.