12 December 2013

We need to better force the technology to come to the person instead of forcing the person to come to the technology

If one were to take my education and professional background and turn it into a survey that could be aggregated to derive trends, my profile would not be included in the STEM category. My bachelors degree was in marketing, my masters degree was in international affairs, and my work is in international development. Minus a year of directly being called an IT project manager, broad categories would classify most, if not all, of my experience as business or liberal arts. Fair enough, right?

Not really. For those of you who know me, you know that my specific brand of international development is mostly focused on the role of information communications technology (ICT). Ironically enough, it was through the student international affairs organization I ran in undergrad that first alerted me to the power of ICT in economically emerging contexts, as it was through this organization that I helped build my first website. From there, my professional work has included all kinds of research, UI design, web content, and information architecture – all to do with the T in STEM – technology.

Yet despite my total embrace of using and wanting to learn more about technology in my career, I am not considered a part of STEM fields. Not only does it make it insanely difficult to talk to both engineering companies and many of my international development colleagues about what exactly I do, it’s discouraging and often isolating to not be given much of a platform to embed myself further in the intersection of the two fields. It’s also misleading. If I were to do the exact same work at an engineering company, my title may change, and my inclusion in the STEM category also may change, even though my job didn’t.

I am an ardent supporter of all of the initiatives of the White House, major corporations, academic institutions, and the like to actively encourage and recruit females to take on the hardest, most challenging, most complicated STEM majors, jobs and career paths possible. But while I think these campaigns and initiatives are incredibly important to the future of female-kind, and really world-kind, I think there is a huge opportunity that is being missed. And that opportunity is mainstreaming technology; it’s forcing the technology to come to person instead of forcing the person to go to the technology.

The UN is a perfect example. There are thousands of brilliant, analytical, logical thinkers that work at the various agencies and the Secretariat of the UN. But because staff members were not forced to be exposed to technology early on, and were subsequently able to get away with never learning much about their computer, with very few exceptions, anything ICT is considered tangential or limited in role to the core operations.

Of course, technology is merely a facilitator of solutions, and often not the solution itself. And this is precisely why it is such a waste to not be promoting technology as a mainstreamed component of non-STEM classified professions. Even if the US Government and every major tech company were to allocate a significant portion of their budgets to promoting STEM majors in high schools and universities around the world, it may take decades to significantly shift the current 24% figure of total STEM roles being done by women. Even if it didn’t, what about the generations of women – mine included – who are currently in the workforce in non-STEM classified roles? Should they be ignored if they can’t afford to go back to school and get a relevant degree?

Consider some of the most popular (by number of women employed) industries for women in the States and Europe:

·      Education
·      Human Resources
·      Social Work
·      Fashion/retail

Based on my experience, I can safely guess the majority (or at least close to half) of the people employed at the UN in professional capacities are also women.

So imagine then that in addition to encouraging women to go into unequivocal, undisputable STEM professions, we also mainstreamed the use of technology in the above professions? I’m not speaking in small strokes, like having a teacher give homework out to students via a tablet, I mean actually require a technology component to these professions.

Imagine if your primary school teacher set up the information architecture to have each student digitally paired with a foreign pen pal? Or the HR rep worked directly with software engineers to set up how job-sourcing sites interact with their department? Or a social worker design an app to pinpoint areas most prone to a certain type of violence, so programmatic efforts could bring workshops where most needed? Or a wedding gown designer worked with a 3-D printer to prototype new designs on different body types?

Sure, there are undoubtedly women who are doing each of the above, but how many of them are doing ICT work for their jobs electively or as a requirement? Imagine how many more people would reach a much higher level of ICT competence if we figured out a way to make this a core requirement of all work? The possibilities are endless, yet we seem to disproportionately focus on driving people to STEM professions instead of promoting STEM applications in all professions. As a result, the above functions now almost entirely go to engineers, programmers, or IT people instead of being done by the experts in the actual profession.

Of course one could make the argument that cross-disciplinary education or professional experience is always useful, so this idea is already being done. And indeed, some links between do exist between traditionally liberal arts and STEM degrees and professions, such as international development and science (public health), art and math (graphic design, architecture), and sociology and engineering (urban planning).

One could also argue that not every job can include every kind of function. True, though 20 years ago, many people would have argued there is little to no application to use the Internet in their profession. 30 years ago, the same was said about computers; 100 years ago, the same was said about human resources departments. The point is that as the world evolves, so do the requirements to make it function. Not giving everyone the opportunity to exercise what is increasingly being seen as a life skill - the use of STEM in the work place - sets a dangerous precedent that will surely affect generations like mine that did not have STEM requirements past high school.

I like to tell myself that had I known there are degrees focused on the intersection of technology and international development (called ICT4D), I would have gone for that instead of an M.A. in International Affairs, but I didn’t, and I am not sure when I started my Masters if I knew that’s what I even wanted. It wasn’t until I started researching for other classes that I realized what is out there, but by then it was too late; I was already an expensive semester into my courses, and there were neither any tracks nor classes in my department geared towards this ICT4D intersection.

Ultimately, what I am saying is that if we want to encourage any group of people, be it women, minorities, or the poor to go into STEM fields, we need to do a better job of making STEM work applicable and apparent to those who are choosing or already in another field. I myself chose international development out an overwhelming desire to make the planet a better place; had I known how critical technology could be to the equation, perhaps I would have gone into a STEM field and worked my way into the international development world. Better yet, maybe the Mala of the next generation will choose exactly the same degrees and work places I did, but have the option to better engage with technology. Who knows, maybe next generation Mala will even be included in the elusive STEM category.