The Pipeline Problem: Apple's Demographics Draw Attention to STEM Diversity Drought

By Rebecca Strong
Posted August 18, 2014 11:00 AM

The pipeline problem: Apple's demographics draw attention to STEM diversity drought.
The pipeline problem: Apple's demographics draw attention to STEM diversity drought.

The first step to solving a problem is often simply recognizing that it's there. As such, the only way to address the lack of diversity in the realms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is to admit that it exists - which is exactly what some of the world's biggest corporations have been doing.

Shedding Light on the Shortage

Bringing transparency to the issue, tech giants like Facebook, Google and Yahoo all released the demographics of their workplaces, and the data was nothing short of disheartening. Firms reported that women, as well as minorities, were vastly underrepresented. Recently, Apple finally followed suit, revealing that 55% of its workforce is Caucasian, 15% is Asian, 11% is Hispanic and just 7% is African-American. Meanwhile, only 30% of staff members are women.

This breakdown shows a higher proportion of Hispanic and African-American employees than other major Silicon Valley firms. Still, while Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook admitted he's not surprised by his own company's figures, he's not satisfied with them. Moreover, Cook promised that the company is committed to making a change.

"We are making progress, and we're committed to being as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing our products," Cook wrote in a statement accompanying the figures. "We believe deeply that inclusion inspires innovation ... Who we are, where we come from, and what we've experienced influence the way we perceive issues and solve problems. We believe in celebrating that diversity and investing in it."

A Step in the Right Direction

As evidence of the firm's efforts, Cook noted that Apple hired a number of new female executives, including Lisa Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to lead its environmental efforts, and former Burberry Group PLC CEO Angela Ahrendts to oversee the retail group. Eddy Cue, a Cuban-American who previously oversaw Apple's services business, was recently promoted to its senior leadership team. Cook emphasized that the company values the unique ideas and perspectives that come from diverse heritage and experiences.

Kimberly Bryant, founder of the San Francisco nonprofit "Black Girls Code," which organizes "hackathons" for African-American girls, told NBC News that the mere exposure of these grim statistics is a major stride toward improvement.

"With these numbers, we can really have some strong conversations about why there needs to be a focus on diversity in this whole technology movement," Bryant told NBC.

Breaking Down Barriers

While worrisome, the race and gender imbalance in STEM is nothing new. In 2010, women represented just 28% of science and engineering workers, while African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for merely 10% of workers in these fields, according to a National Science Board annual report. Although it's easy to place blame on these corporations, the issue apparently begins far before the hiring process. The only question is, who's to blame?

A 2008 study by University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that there is no recognizable gender divide in math performance at the elementary, middle school or high school level. The problem appears to start at the college level, when females are discouraged from pursuing STEM degrees. In 2011, less than 20% of U.S. bachelor's degrees in engineering, physics, and computer science were acquired by women, and while they accounted for more than 40% of college graduates in math, they were awarded less than 30% of the doctorates in math, Quartz reported.

"They're not seeing connections between those kinds of activities in the classroom and the possibility for a future career," Karen K. Myers, an associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained to NBC.

Even when women do manage to penetrate the STEM realms, a Center for Talent Innovation report found that they are 45% more likely than male peers to leave these industries within a year, according to The Washington Post. On the bright side, 80% or more of female STEM workers across all countries admitted they loved their work, and over half of those in the U.S. said they have ambitions to climb to the top.

Here's more good news: The pipeline of global female talent in STEM is rich, and determined individuals are slowly but surely being recognized for their talents. Recently, Stanford University professor Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman and Iranian to win the Fields Medal, which is largely regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

"I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians," she told Stanford News. "I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

Noteworthy Efforts

Meanwhile, schools are doing their part to increase the number of minorities and women in STEM fields. The Penn State Millennium Scholars Program, for example, is designed to inspire academically strong high school seniors from diverse backgrounds to apply for doctoral degrees in science and engineering, Penn State News reported. The U.S. government is also committed to making progress: The STEM Gateways Act, proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., could give schools funding to launch more rigorous STEM academics, emphasizing participation among underrepresented groups.

Seeing as the demand for STEM professionals is slated to rise exponentially on an international level, efforts to improve diversity and enhance the pipeline will be crucial. Not only are these initiatives imperative to accommodate needs in the future workforce, but also to secure America's competitive advantage in the global economy.

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