Let’s stop talking about STEM

March 24, 2015 - 10 Comments

Information Technology is notorious for being one of the most male dominated sectors and has been since the field’s beginnings. Despite many attempts to attract more women into the technology world (for example, Apple and Facebook offer to freeze eggs for female employees, Microsoft supports girls aged 13 years and above to attend their DigiGirlz High Tech Camp program, and every year, Cisco participates in Girls in ICT day by inviting young females on our campuses to give them hands-on exposure to our latest technology), Silicon Valley’s tech giants are still struggling, as the numbers show.


Silicon Valley’s technology giants’ workplace demographics

Given that IT has grown into a $4T industry based on the central premise of selling engineering complexity to customers in the form of sophisticated hardware, software, networks and services, the attention of the industry is focussed on encouraging more young women to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Fortune, Reuters, USA Today, and other media companies are full of stories about how organizations can push women into STEM industries – “Seven strategies for keeping in STEM fields”. The Obama Administration and U.K. Government are finally supporting programs to inspire more young people to study STEM such as “Your Life” – a three-year campaign to ensure young adults in the UK have the maths and science skills needed to succeed in the current competitive global economy. And as demonstrated above, many organizational efforts are focussed on the technical aspects of IT.

However, the IT landscape is currently witnessing an unprecedented transformation and the challenge is no longer just about getting more STEM representation into the sector. As Wood and co reported in Consumption Economics: The New Rules of Tech and B4B: How Technology and Big Data are Reinventing the Customer-Supplier Relationship, the technology world changed forever in 2008 due to 3 major market disruptive events: the global economy collapsed, cloud computing became popular and Apple released the iPhone. As a result, companies did not have as much money to spend on IT, cloud models entered the corporate mainstream from the previous consumer-only world, and line of business users took control and started to make their own IT decisions using personal mobile devices such as iPhones. Instead of complex technologies that customers had to integrated into their already complex IT environments, customers began asking IT companies to deliver business outcomes where the risk and the integration of the solution is owned and managed by the technology vendor. In short, IT decisions are becoming business decisions, made by business leaders, and not by IT departments.

So what does this mean for STEM? Today’s technology companies don’t just need STEM talent; they also need increasing business skills to enable them to make this transition. Line of business leaders (the current and future customers and partners of IT companies) are and will be much more gender-diverse: currently, females form around 48% of employees in developed countries and more women are heading to business schools than ever before. In addition to encouraging males and females addition to encouraging males and females into STEM careers (because technology companies still need engineering skills), we also need to be encouraging young students into business degrees so they can help technology companies to deliver business outcomes to their customers. Since fewer women study STEM than men, this will also help us to recruit more women into IT.

So let’s take our foot off the “STEM” gas pedal a little and let’s accelerate our “Business” gas pedal. The future is bright; the future is business outcomes.

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  1. Tim – Thanks for your comment and thanks for sharing the Washington Post. It’s a great article. It’s true that we do need the “human” skills that computers don’t protect whether they be creativity, customer relationships, etc and also other roles to help us capture market opportunities. Keep the comments coming!

  2. Laura, great post, it’s important to remind ourselves that STEM isn’t an all or nothing proposition, that graduates with STEM skills will also need complementary skills like communications, comprehension, creative thinking, problem solving and business skills. Here’s an article from the Washington Post that puts a similar view to yours. Cheers


  3. Thank you so much for sharing Ralph – I will definitely check this out!

  4. Hi Laura

    I agree on talking less about STEM – that can be quite off putting for young female students.
    Did you see Martha Lane Fox deliver the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, 30/03/2015: http://bbc.in/1BFwu1X via @bbciplayer

    She talks about DOT EVERYONE – a much better way to embrace women into IT.

    Quote from the lecture:
    “There are exciting projects happening in the UK such as techmums, Stemettes and codebar but there need to be more of them, with bigger impact, so we foster the maximum breadth and depth of digital talent.

    Remember the next wave of women can come from all sorts of unlikely places – look at me – An ancient historian!
    DOT EVERYONE our new organisation, must figure out how to put women at the heart of the technology sector. That alone could make us the most digitally successful country on the planet and give us a real edge.”

    I found the lecture very inspiring setting out a longer term and exciting vision/dream for the internet and .EVERYONE in the UK. Certainly something to aspire to…

  5. Hi Apurva, Thank you for your comment and kind words. Your story is a great example of exactly the type of skills we need in IT – a combination of technical skills and business skills! I think it’s fantastic that you are broadening your horizon and you are inspirational to young women around the world!

  6. Hi Laura, A wonderful post..And so apt for the continously evolving industry. As a young STEM talent myself, i am looking into exploring the opportunities to get trained in Business , and thus widen my horizons to reach the high pedestals of the industry we are in. The more integation we bring in Technology and Business, the more sense this evolving industry will make to us!!

  7. Hi Tina,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Yes the point I am trying to make is that the IT world has evolved beyond technical expertise; customers are now asking for business outcomes enabled by technical solutions. A great example of this is Apple: most people don’t think of Apple as an IT company; they think of it as a lifestyle company. Apple’s technology products are renowned for solving customer problems that often customers didn’t even know they had in the first place and, in turn, help customers to have a more enriched lifestyle.

    As you have correctly identified, the world of IT needs a recruit employees with a variety of skills, not just technical skills but also creative skills, legal skills, business skills, etc. I think we are too focussed on getting STEM talent into the industry. Yes we need to continue to attract STEM talent but how are we also targetting business schools to help us to make the transition to business outcomes? How are we encouraging other women “who don’t have technical backgrounds) into a career in IT?

    Love your idea of STEAM! 🙂

  8. I think I understand your main idea here – we need well balanced individuals in the business world today. My best example of this is a good friend who has an undergrad degree in EE, then went and got her legal degree. She does amazing work in intellectual property law for a tech company.

    Having that early training in how to process and think about science, or math, or engineering, builds a baseline that helps expand your abilities as an adult. I started out as an engineer and moved into marketing and social media. That ability to problem solve and be analytical has been a huge factor in my success!

    The piece also missing today is the “A” in STEAM – “arts”. In the end, we need to think about being well-rounded individuals and allowing children to expand into many areas of interest.

  9. Hi Silvia,

    Thanks for your comment Silvia. I fully agree that Business is much more than numbers – it’s about understanding our customers’ businesses and putting together a business plan to solve their top challenges, using our technology and expertise. Thanks for your support and keep the thoughts coming! 🙂

  10. Thank you for this brave post, Laura! Some might say that the M in STEM (math) is part of business. Yet “Business” is so much more than numbers. Managing people, projects, and ideas requires courage that can’t be calculated or measured ahead of time.