One reason for the dearth of female leadership in science, technology engineering, and math fields is that there aren’t enough women in the lower-level jobs that feed into those leadership roles. According to Business Insider, women occupy just 13 to 24 percent of tech-related positions at seven of the largest American tech companies.
Citing that Business Insider report, GE announced an ambitious plan on Wednesday to hire 5,000 women in STEM positions within the next few years. The company already employs about 15,000 women in technical roles, so the numerically pleasing new goal is to employ 20,000 by 2020. It is also aiming to achieve gender parity in its entry-level training program focused on recent college graduates, in part by making a recruitment push at colleges and universities with higher proportions of women in relevant majors. And it vowed to hold managers accountable for failing to “foster a more inclusive environment.”
GE’s effort is promising on several levels. For one, women in STEM beget more women in STEM. In one study, female engineering students working in groups that were at least half women felt more confident in their abilities and declared they were more interested in engineering as a career. The researcher behind that study, Nilanjana Dasgupta, has also shown that having female math instructors makes female college students more confident and excited about the subject. Flooding tech-related departments with women seems bound to pay off in the upper echelons of leadership eventually. (Similarly, the tsunami of women now interesting in running for office is bound to land one of them the presidency at some point … right?) In the nearer term, it is likely to encourage other women to apply for entry-level tech work—a worthy end in itself.
The pipeline problem doesn’t start with employers, of course. In high school, girls and boys perform roughly equally in math and science classes, and they enroll in higher-level classes at similar rates. Women also receive about half of all bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, but they are still underrepresented within certain majors. Women receive just 18 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and 19 percent in engineering, according to data compiled by the National Girls Collaborative Project. And almost 40 percent of women who do receive degrees in engineering either leave the profession or never enter it.
Shockingly, GE isn’t publicly committing to hiring more women out of pure feminist benevolence. The “skills gap” in the tech industry is well-documented: Employers have a difficult time filling technical positions, so companies have an incentive to widen their pool of potential hires. But the company announced its hiring push with notably splashy fanfare, which suggests it doesn’t mind polishing its feminist credentials along the way. To accompany the announcement, it produced a gorgeous new commercial titled “What If Scientists Were Celebrities?” The ad depicts a world in which 86-year-old National Medal of Science winner Mildred Dresselhaus, the “queen of carbon science,” enjoys Kardashian-level fame:
The ad’s details are beautifully observed: Dresselhaus on the cover of Us Weekly (“One in a Millie”), a boom in babies named Millie, a gray-haired Dresselhaus emoji. Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson shows up in a split-second cameo! The spot was directed by Nicole Holofcener, known for her brilliant female-centric movies like Walking and Talking and Enough Said. (Bonus irrelevant fine-print detail: The ad’s director of photography was Danny Moder, husband to one Julia Roberts.)
Like’s Audi’s recent Super Bowl ad touting pay equality (and also German luxury cars), the GE spot is a 60-second valentine to basic feminist principles. It won’t change anything on its own. But it includes a promising subtext: Promoting women in science and tech isn’t just good HR—these days it’s good PR, too.