MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? is written by Terri McCullough, director of No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, a Clinton Foundation initiative.
While many of us promise our children that they can be whatever they want when they grow up, the numbers seem to tell a different story. The truth is that women hold around one in four of all STEM jobs despite making up half of the population. As a society, we too often claim — to our children, to our constituents, and to our employees — to want diversity, even as our biases and behaviors continue to create disparities. We have to change the culture if we want to change the numbers.
We know more than ever about the progress women have made, and how far we still have to go. While women’s representation in the private sector has improved over the past 20 years, gender inequality still persists at every level. The chasms are especially prevalent in tech, and in areas such as computer science, the gap is actually worsening. The gender gap in STEM continues as women prepare for and enroll in college. Data from No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project at the Clinton Foundation, reveal that while women earn the majority of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S., they earn only 18% of computer science degrees, down from a high of 37% in 1984. A 22-cent gender wage gap persists, and women continue to spend a disproportionate amount of time on unpaid work.
Cultural barriers persist for women as they enter the workforce. We’ve all heard — or experienced — the stories of sexism in tech. Such deterrents help keep women outnumbered in startups and boardrooms from New York City to Silicon Valley. But solutions to gender inequality are within reach. Specifically, if we want to foster more equal representation in leadership, institutions and individuals — including and especially men — we must address the explicit, implicit, and internalized biases that limit women’s leadership opportunities.
These biases include the boxes that we place around women in tech. Freeing women from these constraints means recognizing that a tech entrepreneur doesn’t have to look like Mark Zuckerberg. Nor should we expect them to share the same cultural background as him. Too many women are rendered invisible not only by their sex, but also by their race, socio-economic circumstances, and other factors.
We can further increase diversity in leadership by dispelling the myth that every woman in tech has to be a developer or an engineer. According to Kiah Williams, co-founder of SIRUM and a participant at an event that we convened last year on women in technology, many of today’s twenty-somethings don’t realize that they have the potential to lead a tech startup even if they never learn how to code. And, we must close the imagination gap — through mentors, teachers, and the media — so younger girls see the real opportunities in STEM education and professions.
Transforming our culture is the only way to ensure that women of all backgrounds have a fair shot at fulfilling their destinies, whether in tech or any other sphere. We’ve already told our children that the sky is the limit. Now it’s up to all of us to help build a future where it’s true.