Even at an early age, women underrepresented in tech

BY Sarah Sheffer  February 3, 2014 at 4:32 PM EDT
AP Testing In Progress sign, Neuqua Valley High, Chicago. Photo by Flickr User Cory Doctorow.

AP Testing In Progress sign, Neuqua Valley High, Chicago. Photo by Flickr User Cory Doctorow.

Silicon Valley business woman Sheryl Sandberg has popularized a movement to get professional women to “lean in” and fight for their positions at the top of their fields. With no female equivalent of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in tech, the Facebook COO saw that women were underrepresented in the industry and encouraged them to step up.

But tech’s diversity problem may start much earlier than that – maybe even as early as high school.

Statistics from the 2013 Advanced Placement, or AP, exam in computer science show that three U.S. states had no female students participate in the high school test, according to data released by the College Board last month. And in states where women did take the exam, female participation ranged from as low as about 4 percent in Utah to only as high as 29 percent in Tennessee.

And the diversity gap didn’t stop there. The same report revealed that 11 states had no black students take the exam and another 8 states had no Hispanic participation.

Female employment in science, technology, engineering and math—known as STEM jobs — has actually declined since the 1990s according to the United States Census Bureau. Women made up around 27 percent of STEM employees in 2011, according to their study. But that was down from 34 percent in 1990.

With women holding nearly half of the jobs in the U.S. economy, the disproportionate numbers in tech are troubling to many.

Chief Economist for the United States Department of Commerce Mark Doms called women in tech “key to America’s innovation and competitiveness,” following the release of the Census Bureau numbers.

“It’s important for women and for America’s future that we leverage this under-tapped resource, by encouraging from an early age women’s access to education as well as workforce opportunities in STEM,” he went on.

College Board has stepped up efforts to make sure underserved populations have access to AP testing and resources.

But much is left to be done to improve STEM diversity and competitiveness.

AP courses are college-level curriculums for outstanding students. The advanced courses can help high school students get into colleges and can transfer into college credits.