Have we reached “peak STEM”?
On August the 5th, an internal Google memorandum written by the now unemployed software engineer James Damore, found its way into the public domain and stoked the already fiery discussion around the inclusion of women in technology, and specifically in Silicon Valley. The memo refers to the oft-debunked concept that career choices for men and women are due to their biological differences, and not the centuries of social construction assigning men into dominant cultural roles. In the time of Alex Jones, the divorce of facts and reality, and tweeting presidents, we should all question the motives of, and keep an eye on Damore’s next career move. One would hope that as he says, his intention was to “improve” Google, and that his character will guide him away from what could be a lucrative career as an oppressed white guy martyr targeted by the Thought Police, but that’s another conversation for another day.
Is there a gender pay gap? Yes, it’s well documented. We need to, as a culture acknowledge this, and rectify it, through corporate mandates lead from CEOs and boards on down the hierarchy, and education of gender and sex equality.
Is there discrimination of women in society and the workplace? Yes, and, the centuries of discrimination, and oppressive conditions for women are very well documented in both today’s news, and any history textbook. Women have been oppressed, and still are, on the basis of someone else’s morals and ideology — in stark contrast with the views of Mr. Damore’s manifesto. Furthermore, Damore is woefully, and as PhD candidate in biology, astonishingly wrong about biological differences predetermining cognitive abilities of women and men.
Is it true that our society needs to place more value on its teachers, nurses, and social workers? Yes, of course. It is arguable that someone who can successfully navigate a metropolitan city’s family and mental health services bureaucracy should be awarded combat pay. It is arguable that someone who is there for another person during his or her hardest days, or one who supports a child whose parents were just killed in a car accident, are worth ten times what the best coder is worth. It’s an unfathomably cultural, social construct that has set these values, plain and simple.
Hardly a day passes when an article or interview subject isn’t talking about the next industry that will be replaced by artificial intelligence. When most of us think about what computers and automation will replace, we think of workers on factory assembly lines being substituted for robots, that day has already come and gone. Rather, in the next few years computers and their software are going to replace, through machine learning, and automation, the middle levels of STEM and Business. Coders, engineers, accountants, 10-K combing MBAs, lawyers, watch your backs.
Computers are already very good, and are getting much better at task-specific artificial intelligence. And, indeed, the machines are advancing their very own programming skills and not inviting us to the party. What, we should be asking ourselves — will computers not replace? Us. Our humanity.
So, yes, there is a blatant pay gap and sexism problem in our culture, in business, technology, and in the microcosm of Silicon Valley. It can’t be said often enough, the country, and business management need to once and for all pull themselves together and fix it, the injustice has existed far too long.
While there is no doubt, at present certain degrees carry prestige and value premium, and that men are obtaining them in greater numbers than their female counterparts. A question we ought to ask ourselves is: have we already reached “peak STEM”? Are women, purposefully, brilliantly, and deservedly building the lead in what we’re going to need next?
In December of last year, the National Center for Education Statistics released its latest Digest of Education Statistics (DES). A 1042-page tome of data tables and explanations that, buried deep inside, hold a few specific and highly relevant data points for the discussion on women’s role in technology.
To begin with, women are ahead of the game in getting a degree of any kind. During the 2013–14 academic year: 1,611,783 degrees were awarded to women to the 1,190,086 to men.
Degree specific data at a glance — (STEM Degrees in Bold)
- Total STEM Undergraduate Degrees Conferred: 177,758
- Graduate Degrees: 64,965
- Total STEM Undergraduate Degrees Conferred: 61,206
- Graduate Degrees: 26,152
There is debate in academia as to whether the Nursing field is a STEM profession. Some say that it is an “applied” field, rather than a pure research, so it cannot be counted. From 2012 to 2013, however, more than 110,000 nursing degrees were conferred. It’s questionable that many technology degrees fit this “applied” bill as well.
To pull the themes together: While women may be, on the whole, light on the traditional STEM degrees, they are heavy on human degrees.
Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and an in-depth 2013 study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, Bloomberg built an incredible interactive visualization. The visualization shows fields and careers that are “Least likely to be automated,” and “Most likely to be automated.” It states that, “some lower-wage jobs with higher-education requirements are less likely to be automated.” Think: social workers, teachers, psychologists, nurses, and business managers. The careers that involve human interaction can’t be easily automated or replaced by a robot. Maybe someday we’ll all have therApIst™ app on our smartphones, but, not quite yet, probably not for a long while. Women, while not only exhibiting nobility of purpose, are too, setting themselves up to be un-automatable.
There is something to be said about the quality of a person who persists, and is successful in a demanding, lower-wage career. And, just because a job pays a high salary, it doesn’t make it more important to society. What is important today may very well be unimportant tomorrow. Passion, not profits, drive us in the end.
Hopefully, those who choose to enter non-STEM fields like manufacturing and services have done their homework on automation. But, there is no question, if we’re playing God with artificial intelligence we’re going to need human intelligence to make it in our image. Computers are predictable, wholly learnable complex systems, humans are unpredictable complex systems: learn the humans, not the computers.
Going forward, having human experience, and creativity, and critical thinking skills will be what is important and lucrative. None of the computers that are built, none of the apps that are written, none of the products that are manufactured mean anything without humans who use them. It’s the humans who are the only constant in the equation.