When Per Scholas first started out in 1995 in the South Bronx, it was filling a niche in the dot-com bubble by training students to refurbish computer software and exploring pathways for Bronxites into the exclusive STEM field.
After 30 years, 200,000 graduates and a national buildout in 25 cities, Per Scholas is still encouraging growth opportunities and pathways for Bronxites in the STEM field. But the nonprofit is also looking to level disparities in the industry, where low pay, stunted career advancement and a culture of sexual violence undercutting the contributions and careers of women in the industry.
While women make up just under 30% of the tech workforce that gender gap is steadily closing in Per Scholas’ network where 41% of their learners were women last year. In 2022 alone, Per Scholas trained 1,545 women technologists for high-growth careers and 84% of their students are people of color.
“It’s all about a collaborative effort, it takes a village,” said Debbie Roman, managing director at Per Scholas. “When we talk about building their career journey to become part of leadership positions in (STEM) it’s reflective on the type of programming and the environment that we put in place in order to support our women.”
For the first time in the prestigious summer STEM program Research Science Institute, women outnumbered men in student representation, comprising 55% of accepted U.S. students, which is up from 22% in 1984.
But the industry still lacks significant diversity — a 2021 Pew Research Center report notes that Black students earned only 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2018 — and safeguards for women in the industry to advance in leadership roles or feel secure in their workplace.
This year has been a tough one for tech sector employees, as ongoing layoffs at Google, Facebook/Meta and Amazon have created uncertainty. Research by talent intelligence platform Eightfold AI found that these tech layoffs affect women more than men, as 65% of women are more likely to lose their jobs than their male peers.
And for those women who can avoid the chopping block, their pay isn’t on the same level as their male counterparts.
White men working in STEM make $24,000 more per year than white women in STEM — a 40% pay disparity — and that gap widens for Black and Hispanic women, according to Pew Research Center.
“We know that technology has always been a male dominant industry,” said Roman. “So it comes back to education and what is limiting women or women-identifying individuals to enter the industry? It has to do with education and allowing … them to see themselves within the tech industry.”
A Bronx digital divide
Despite the ongoing layoffs in big tech circles, STEM jobs are still projected to grow 10% until 2031, compared to 4.9% for other industries.
One of the pathways to a STEM career is an aptitude and success in math and science. However, the pandemic has severely undercut New York student performance in those subjects.
Recent data from The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows student performance dropped significantly in 2022 from 2019. New York’s average score remained steady for eighth-grade reading but declined in eighth-grade math by 6 points. The average drop for New York’s fourth-grade math scores — roughly 10 points — was so severe that consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated this learning loss to be the equivalent of nearly an entire school year.
A post-pandemic analysis by McKinsey found that in math, “students in majority-Black schools are now 12 months behind their peers in majority-white schools.”
One issue that Per Scholas says furthers inaccess to the STEM field is a digital divide that has impacted Bronx students, and students of color more disproportionately.
Broadband adoption rates in the Bronx is lowest in the city, with 38% of Bronx households without broadband connection, and nearly 1 in 5 teens unable to complete homework or take home assignments, according to The Bronx Community Foundation.
“Accessibility is important and accessibility comes down to not only the broadband accessibility … it should be like you have water and electricity, right?” said Roman. “Why is broadband sort of seen as an added luxury? Closing that digital divide is relevant to anyone being able to get out poverty and be able to enter into meaningful work space.”
In her State of the Borough address, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson noted that one of the goals of her administration was to increase connectivity as a way to increase job opportunities in the borough.
“In the Bronx, we are experiencing too many of our residents living without connectivity or having access to technology,” Gibson said at the time. “Our administration is deeply committed to bringing our borough into the 21st century.”
Gibson announced her support for the Link NYC kiosks and the need for greater public/private partnerships to eliminate digital deserts, in conjunction with a $14.5 million allocation in her fiscal year 2023 budget for technology upgrades and capital upgrades for Bronx schools.