Unlocking the code to more innovation

By: Donna Epps
Unlocking the code to more innovation

By now, we’ve all heard that women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) – related professions.  An important, new study released by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, entitled The Demographics of Innovation in the United States, highlights one unfortunate consequence of this fact by examining the demographics of innovators in the U.S. The study found, among other things, a striking gender split among innovators - only 12 percent of the innovators were women.  The numbers were even worse for minorities born in the United States. For example, Hispanics born in the US make up 17.4% of the population, but only 2.1% of innovators in the study.  Even worse, African Americans make up 13.2 % of the population, but only 0.4% of U.S. born innovators. ITIF’s study underscores the importance of STEM education, and makes clear that we have much more work to do to create the opportunities and support systems necessary to increase the numbers of women and minorities pursuing STEM degrees and careers.

During a recent ITIF event, a panel of experts discussed the study’s many findings and provided suggestions for increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM fields. Some panelists discussed the challenges women and minorities face while pursuing STEM degrees, while others outlined strategies to help under-represented minorities advance to more senior level positions once they enter technology organizations. 

For example, Dr. Stacie Gregory of the American Association of University Women described research that shows how a social phenomenon called “stereotype threat” may contribute to a lack of persistence among female and underrepresented minority students in pursuing engineering degrees. She explained that “stereotype threat” occurs when individuals fear that they will confirm a negative stereotype about a group to which they belong. For example, studies have shown when negative stereotypes about women’s mathematical abilities are brought to test-takers’ attention during tests, their performance drops.

Another panelist, Viola Maxwell-Thompson, President of the Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF), a national non-profit organization for IT executives of color, discussed strategies to help underrepresented minorities excel and advance in IT professions.  ITSMF is committed to increasing the representation of African-Americans at senior levels in technology by providing opportunities for mentoring, networking and rigorous professional development. Verizon is a proud ITSMF corporate partner.

If we are to broaden and deepen our country’s innovative output, we must help ensure all children truly have the opportunity to grow into the innovators of tomorrow. That is why the Verizon Foundation focuses much of its work on creating programs to stimulate and retain students’ interest in STEM-related subjects.  We are particularly passionate about creating programs to show young people in under-represented groups how they can be more than just a user of technology, but also a maker. Here are a few examples:

  • Verizon Innovative Learning Schools (VILS) provide students and teachers in underserved schools with mobile tablets and data plans giving them 24-7 Internet access. Our VILS program also provides teachers with comprehensive professional development on how to effectively integrate mobile technology into all aspects of the learning process, with a particular focus on math and science courses. VILS teachers report their students have improved their overall academic performance and scored higher on standardized achievement math tests.
  • Working with four Historically Black Universities - Morgan State University, Jackson State University, Kentucky State University and North Carolina A&T -  Verizon helped create the “Minority Male Makers” program, which provides opportunities for boys of color in the 7th and 8th grades to be exposed to robotics, app design and development, and 3D modeling, design and printing. The goal is to empower a new generation of minority men by giving them lifelong technology and entrepreneurship skills to build the innovations of tomorrow and create brighter futures for themselves and their families.
  • Our Innovative App Challenge invites middle and high school students to develop original concepts for apps that could help solve problems in their schools or communities. The winners are then teamed up with programmers from MIT to bring the app to life.  In 2014, 91% of the kids on winning teams said they were more likely to pursue a STEM career and 61% reported stronger interest in computer science.

The underrepresentation of women and minorities in engineering and computer science is a complex social problem. There is no silver bullet. We must all work together to overcome the challenges that are preventing us from tapping into the potential and perspective that students from all backgrounds have to offer. We enthusiastically accept the challenge to help expand the pool of potential innovators by making the demographics of US innovation more reflective of the demographics of the United States as a whole.

About the author(s): 

Donna Epps directs Verizon’s domestic public policy team, as well as relationships with our external partners. Prior to her current position, Ms. Epps worked in Verizon’s Federal Regulatory Affairs group where she developed and advocated Verizon’s federal regulatory policy positions on key issues facing the communications industry, with an emphasis on issues related to competition, economic regulation, and consumer protection.