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Women Have the Skills to Stand Out in STEM Fields

This blog was initially published on the Huffington Post

This week, my boss, Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers, is being recognized at the U.S. STEM Solutions Summit as one of the 100 CEO Leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

This is a great recognition for Cisco’s efforts in developing talent for the technology field. On the other hand, the list of Fortune 100 CEO’s is disappointing because of what’s missing – women. Only 18 of the 100 leaders listed are women.

In the United States and around the world, there are far more technology-oriented jobs than candidates to fill them. According to the National Math + Science Initiative (NMSI), jobs in U.S are projected to grow 45 percent between 2008 -2018 in computer systems design and related services, a math intensive field.

Further, a new study from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program says 20 percent of all jobs in the United States require a “high level of knowledge” in at least one STEM field. Half of these jobs don’t even require bachelor’s degree, yet they pay $53,000 on average—10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.

Clearly, the computer technology represents a good career choice with strong possibilities for employment and professional growth. Yet it appears that this message isn’t reaching a broader audience of women.

NMSI reports that men over age 25 held 87 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering fields. Only 23 percent of workers in STEM-related jobs are women, yet women make up 48 percent of workers in all occupations. The higher you go on the corporate ladder, the lower these numbers become. According to a report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), women held just 9 percent of IT management positions and accounted for only 14 percent of senior management positions at Silicon Valley startups.

You don’t need to be a math whiz to see that these numbers don’t add up.

Here is my perspective on all this.

Studying these subjects in the classroom can be just as isolating to young girls as employing them in the workplace. There is an outdated belief that girls are not as good at science and math subjects as boys. But according to the report Generation STEM, high school girls earn more math and science credits than boys do, and their GPAs, aggregated across math and science classes, are higher than boys. Still, these stereotypes can hold girls back and question their abilities.

Girls at a young age must have something that sparks their interest in technology or science. This passion proved life-changing for Soso Luningo, a former Cisco Networking Academy student who grew up in a poor South African village but today is a successful professional because she discovered and pursued her passion for technology. We must all do what we can to encourage young women to pursue these fields of study – to give them the confidence to raise their voices, even in a roomful of men.

Cisco Networking Academy instructor Soso Luningo

Soso Luningo (center) teaches computer networking skills at the CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Also, women must feel that they can succeed in a tech career  starting with their first job. This is a critical point. I have seen women who are very interested in technology finish their graduate or undergraduate degrees, but then choose not to pursue a career in tech because they’re not sure they want to spend the next 20 to 30 years in an industry that’s  male dominated.

The NCWIT report says women leave technology careers at a much higher rate than men; that 40 percent of technical women reported lacking role models, while nearly half reported lacking mentors.

When I took my first job, I was among only a handful of woman. It was isolating at times. My love for technology kept me going and I got to where I am today driven by my passion and self confidence.

I always tell women to use the fact that we offer a different point of view in a room full of men, to their advantage. Because we often stand out, we gain a unique platform to demonstrate our knowledge and capabilities.

Let us look forward to a tomorrow, when the ratio of women in the tech industry will truly reflect the number of women who have the ability to succeed.

Here is how we can wake up to that tomorrow– mentor a woman at work, coach a young girl to excel in STEM. Know a young woman who is interested in technology? See if Cisco Networking Academy courses are offered in her area.

Love to hear your thoughts!

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