February 26th, 2013

The Dearth of Young Women in STEM, And What We Can Do About It: D.C. Vito’s City Council Testimony

A young female student edits her video in the Deconstructing Fashion program with the New York Public Library.

D.C. Vito, The LAMP’s Executive Director, was invited to testify yesterday at the New York City Council’s joint hearing between the committees on Technology, Women’s Issues and Higher Education. The topic of the day was women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) fields–or, more specifically, the lack of women in STEM fields, and efforts we can take to recruit and retain them to make the industry more equitable and welcoming for women. The LAMP is unique because we work with young girls and see how they relate to technology, but in our Digital Career Path, family, professional development and intergenerational programs, we’ve seen how that relationship evolves. It seems to us that somewhere along the timeline of a young girl’s life, a shift happens that changes the way she thinks about technology and the role it plays in her professional and personal life. Read on for D.C.’s complete testimony:

“Madame/Mr. Chairperson, thank you for the opportunity to provide you with input on this important topic. My name is D.C. Vito, and I am the Executive Director of The LAMP, a non-profit media education organization. I’ve had the pleasure of being in many classrooms across New York City, talking with students, parents and educators. Since 2007, schools and libraries in mostly underprivileged communities have brought in The LAMP for hands-on media fluency workshops on topics like how news is made, what persuasive techniques are used in advertisements and how to have healthy relationships with media. Time and time again, I see the girls in our workshops every bit as eager as the boys to learn how to edit videos and dig their hands into the nuts and bolts of technology and media. Half of The LAMP’s entire student population is made up of girls and young women, and yet, as all of us here are well aware, there is a dearth of women working in the fields of technology and media.

At this moment, The LAMP is running a digital skills job-training program called Digital Career Path in partnership with Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow, or OBT, in Bushwick. This program is geared towards disconnected youth who are often aging out of foster care, heavily dependent on social services or who are looking to make a positive change in their lives. They’re learning how to create and maintain a professional presence online, how to do research online, how to use WordPress, Skype and programs in the Adobe Creative Suite, and much more, while also earning their certifications as Microsoft Office Specialists. All of these skills are considered basic to working in any modern office.

However, barely a third of the students in Digital Career Path are women. When we held informational open houses about the program, only a handful of those attendees were girls. Both The LAMP and OBT conducted outreach with local community organizations serving women, and still, few expressed interest. Between the time when they are in their early teens, eagerly exploring technology in LAMP workshops, and the time when they are young adults, forging early careers, something is happening in the way our young women perceive technology.

Perhaps, as they grow older and begin to imagine life as an adult, they don’t see enough other women in technology receiving a similar amount of attention as men in the same field, making them virtually invisible. In fact, roughly 90% of our media are controlled by a handful of media companies, all of which are run by white men. Perhaps it’s because when women are represented in advertisements, movies, television and other media, they’re objectified and passive. Perhaps our young women don’t see enough people of color, male or female, working in technology-related fields, or perhaps it’s because technology careers are viewed as options only for those with a college degree or who can afford home computers and broadband access. These are the stigmas we fight every day, and in order to combat it, women and young girls need to be become immersed in STEM-related teaching like digital media fluency as early as possible in their schools. At least part of this outreach needs to be focused on young women of color, and there needs to be more programs–like Digital Career Path–which are explicitly targeted at underserved populations. This program ensures that even those who cannot or choose not to attend college are still able to gain the skills needed to compete in a twenty-first century economy.

The young women who come out of the Digital Career Path program will find themselves better prepared for work in virtually any field, STEM-related or not. It is my hope that they will encourage their girlfriends to join Digital Career Path, and that they will in essence become recruiters and ambassadors for the program. But even more than that, I hope that all of them continue to use STEM skills in their everyday lives, and set an example for the girls around them who may just now be thinking about what they need to learn as they prepare for adulthood. I hope those young girls see and understand that technology skills are valuable for any career, and that they are not the purview of men, but rather the purview of people living and growing in the twenty-first century.”

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