WASHINGTON — The low number of women working in computer science isn't just a concern for tech companies worried about the image problem of a male-dominated workforce. It's also a business challenge.
So argues Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, the educational arm of Intel, where she also serves as director of philanthropy.
At the opening day of a conference on promoting the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Hawkins explained that Intel, like other Silicon Valley and high-tech firms, has "special and specific needs" in the areas of computer science and computer engineering. Those two subsets of the STEM family are something of an anomaly, marked by a widening gender gap while in other technical fields the ranks of women in the workforce have been on the rise.
"Unlike almost every other field of science or engineering, those two fields in particular have really dismal records in terms of women's participation," Hawkins says.
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Hawkins notes that Intel's push to bring more women into its ranks is not just an effort at diversity for diversity's sake. "This for us isn't only simply that we're not having access to half the workforce by not having women," she says. "How can we — any of us as companies — find and design products for that half of the population if that half of the population isn't in the company helping us to make those decisions?"
Hawkins likewise points to a "significant underrepresentation of people of color" in the computer science and engineering fields.
Boosting STEM Education 'Matter of Dogma'
This week's STEM conference comes amid ongoing concerns about a shortage of qualified workers trained in those fields, particularly as industries in all sectors of the economy become more technology-centered.
To be sure, some prominent academics dispute the narrative of a shortfall in the STEM workforce, arguing that U.S. colleges and universities actually produce more graduates with degrees in those fields than there are jobs to fill.
For many companies in the tech sector and other hard-science fields, though, the need to boost STEM education is a matter of dogma — and a chief policy priority of their lobbying and advocacy efforts.
"We know that we need a very technically qualified workforce," says Blair Blackwell, manager of education and corporate programs at Chevron. The specific skills remain unknown, she adds, "But what we do know is they need to be able to think critically. We need to have students who have both the hard science skills as well as the ability to problem-solve, the ability to communicate."
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While stressing the importance of efforts to boost STEM education, particularly at the K-12 levels, Hawkins and others acknowledge that tech companies can do only so much on their own. In addition to lobbying for stronger education standards at the state and federal level, they urge businesses to get involved with nonprofits and associations working at the community level.
Intel, for instance, has forged a partnership with the National Center for Women & Information Technology and sponsors hackathons, girls-only robotics teams and other activities oriented toward generating interest in technology among students.
The company also recruits its employees into student mentorship programs and other efforts to engage with the education community. "On a basic level, we encourage all of our employees to volunteer in any way they choose," Hawkins says.
Community, Youth Outreach Can Be 'Transformational'
Community outreach can also be a two-way street. Mark Vaughn, manager of technical talent pipelining at Corning, urges companies to consider efforts as simple as bring-your-child-to-work days. Vaughn recalls one such day about a decade ago, when he brought his daughter to shadow him in Corning's R&D center. She got to observe researchers working on cutting-edge innovations in a hands-on setting.
The experience was transformational, Vaughn says. His daughter went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and is now working on her master's in the same field.
"That's something that individual companies can actually do," Vaughn says, urging firms of all sizes, simply enough: "Start somewhere."