Circular flow: How the STEM "pipeline" has historically led women to less than nowhere

The engineering campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pictured in an aerial view during an autumn sunset on Oct. 5, 2011. Clockwise from bottom right is the Engineering Centers Building, Mechanical Engineering Building, Material Science and Engineering Building, Engineering Hall, and Engineering Research Building. In the background is Camp Randall Stadium. The photograph was made from a helicopter looking south. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Image By: Jeff Miller

Prior to the 1970s, the term “pipeline” was used in industry to describe the process in which a product is pushed through the development phase and out into the market. However, this metaphor would gain new meaning with the gradual diminishing of women from technology-based fields. Now women, not objects, are the ones being pumped into a “pipeline” that ideally leads to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Since historians have uncovered the fact that it was women, not men, that comprised the majority of the early computing labor force, one must wonder why it has become necessary to drive large amounts of women from diverse backgrounds into a tunnel that hopefully leads to technical jobs. To answer this, one must understand that the original purpose of the pipeline was to allow women to get positions of management. This management tunnel, or the precursor to the STEM pipeline, had a host of problems that only worsened the state of working women.

One issue of the management tunnel was its inability to combat the sexual discrimination oppressing women in the workplace. Male executives typically gave promotions and growth opportunities to men long before women, leaving females stuck in their positions with nowhere to go but down. This constant fear of job loss forced women to put forth massive amounts of effort, often much more than their male counterparts, just to avoid joining the ranks of the unemployed. Clearly, the tunnel concept was not working, for women were either losing their jobs or were stuck in a perpetual state of occupational distress.

When the management tunnel eventually collapsed, governments and private companies alike blamed the external economic turnover for its failure instead of considering that the problems laid within the conservative environment that these women were entering. The job market’s transition towards greater technological use, these collective bodies believed, made it necessary to develop a pipeline just for getting women into STEM careers.

Although this new STEM “pipeline” appears to be contemporary, it actually uses outmoded and ineffective methods to deal with the problems facing women.

A prime example of the STEM pipeline’s repetitive oversight can be seen in the modern drive to make computer coding a universal skill. The UW-Madison Computer Science Department currently offers a course where students teach children at local elementary schools to code in the basic and interactive coding language Scratch.

This initiative attempts to bypass the “leaks” of the STEM pipeline, for instead of sending individuals towards futures in STEM, this program brings critical science and technology education to the students. However, an important thing to realize is that efforts to make coding universal, like the pipeline itself, have actually existed since the 1960s.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that the problems faced by women and other minorities pursuing careers in STEM cannot be simply solved by teaching kids to code. The History of Women in Computing shows that having a desired skill or ability does not guarantee proper treatment or due reward, for the British and American Governments still ostracized and replaced their highly qualified and dedicated women programmers with men who were less suited for the task.

The vexing nature of this injustice leads one to conclude that not only is the STEM pipeline going to fail, but also this turbulent approach can actually prove harmful to the future of millions of students and technical laborers. Above all, any attempt to better the lives of women in the workforce or society, in general, must first look and learn from the past, for history doesn't repeat, but it most definitely rhymes.

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