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Providing Support Networks For Women in STEM

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A woman who has scored the job she wants.

Women are networking to help other women obtain, and excel in, science, technology, engineering, and math-related jobs.


There is a striking gender gap in the computing and communications fields, as women apparently have been turned off to the computing community in school, in the workplace, and even in academia. However, there are many efforts underway to motivate women to greater success in the field, such as the grassroots employee network StrongHer at French telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent.

Based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for 2014, women held more than half (57.2% ,or 18.8 million) of professional and related jobs in the U.S. last year, yet only held a quarter (25.6%, or 1.1 million) of the subset of computer and mathematical occupations. Since the mid-1980s, women’s participation in professional and related occupations has been steadily trending upward, but it is troubling that in computer and mathematical occupations, the trend is the direct opposite.

Considering the forecast 1.2-million unfilled science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) job openings by 2022,  it makes sense to boost the participation of underrepresented females. A 2014 Google study identified the four major influencers of women to pursue a computer science degree as social encouragement, self-perception, academic exposure, and career perception, and for many, those influencers were found to be negative.

In response to these conditions, Pascal Thorre, global diversity director at Alcatel-Lucent, joined with five women colleagues to launch the StrongHer grassroots network in 2011, "to take action with an employee network for women to unleash their potential to contribute to the company." A board of six manages the network, which operates in more than 50 countries on three continents, with 1,250 members connecting through more than 20 local chapters.

StrongHer facilitates local and global networking among women in technology, providing opportunities to inspire women through networking, webcasts, and videoconferences. In fact, StrongHer’s fourth-birthday multisite videoconference this year resulted in a big win, according to Thorre, "when women participated from countries typically not very active—notably in Southeast Asia."

Florence Mazars, head of Transformation Sustainability in Managed Services Operations at Alcatel-Lucent, emphasized the network "has a collective, collaborative way of working. It is top-down and bottom-up." A winning example of bottom-up collaboration, Mazars recalled, took place three years ago, when "the StrongHer Egypt chapter created a StrongHer Award, where employees identified women who were exceptional and made an impact on the business and the team." Ultimately, StrongHer succeeded in institutionalizing this local award, which makes role models visible at every level of the company, by replicating it in several countries.

Thorre said StrongHer’s ultimate mission is to "boost motivation…so women do not consider themselves as outsiders, but as full insiders." Since its founding four years ago, StrongHer has won recognition and awards, including Alcatel-Lucent signing a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognizing StrongHer as a best-practice model that can be replicated in any industry to address the need for greater gender diversity.

Other companies not scoring well in gender diversity also are seeking to empower, mentor, and support women in technology. One example is Cisco, which uses Facebook and LinkedIn as platforms on which women employees can network. Cisco is fully committed to US2020, an organization working to increase the number of STEM professionals mentoring and teaching students, with a focus on serving underrepresented communities (girls, minorities, and low-income children). Its goal is to match 1 million STEM mentors with students from kindergarten through college via youth-serving nonprofits by 2020.

Microsoft has a variety of employee resource groups to support employees based on their ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, and other factors. The Women Employee Resource Group works to develop and support female employees at the software giant through opportunities such as global conferences, networking events, and mentoring." The program Women at Microsoft currently reaches more than 55,000 people worldwide through locally led women's employee networks, according to the company."

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) "is a non-profit community of more than 600 universities, companies, non-profits, and government organizations nationwide working to increase women’s participation in computing and technology." The organization, whose financial supporters include Apple, Google, Intel, and Microsoft, among others, works to equip change leaders "with resources for taking action in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women from K–12 and higher education through industry and entrepreneurial careers.

The Anita Borg Institute (ABI), whose "visionary partners" include Google, Microsoft, and Cisco, also is active in addressing the gender gap in technology fields. ABI "helps women grow their careers and make significant contributions to technical fields," the organization says, through programs and awards that "highlight the accomplishments of women technologists, and recognize organizations building innovation-driven teams." When it comes to networking, ABI says its "Systers"  is the "world’s largest email community of women in technical roles in computing." A forum for women involved in the technical aspects of computing, Systers has over 5,500 members from more than  60 countries.

When it comes to education, supported by corporate partners such as Adobe, Microsoft, Twitter, and others, Girls Who Code "aims to provide computer science education and exposure to 1 million young women by 2020." If successful, there would be almost enough of those young ladies to fill the anticipated employment shortfall forecast for 2022.

Tatjana Meerman is a freelance technology writer based in the Washington, D.C. area.


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