On Friday, October 24, 2014, Linda Mills addressed the University of Illinois – Urbana on the 50th Anniversary of its Computer Science Department. Below are her remarks.

Innovation and the Role of Young Women and Minorities in STEM

I’m delighted and honored to speak today at this exciting and important 50 year milestone in the department’s illustrious history. It’s a significant landmark for the school and indeed for the computer industry. As you know, the University’s computer science department is consistently ranked as one of the foremost in the world, and is a leader in advancing the entire field. 

This University recognized very early the transformational role that computers and information technology would play in our lives. It was one of the first in the country to offer a degree in computer science.

In fact, that’s what attracted me to U of I’s graduate school – the university’s reputation in engineering and computer science – a place where I could learn, meet the luminaries of the time and experiment with super-computing and the early Internet.

I’m forever grateful for the education I received here. The University gave me invaluable technology and computer science skills, but more than that it provided a strong foundation in critical thinking; a bigger, strategic view with an overarching engineering perspective; encouragement for my inquisitiveness; and an outlet to fulfill my passion for learning. These fundamental building blocks have served me well in both my professional and personal lives.

As I reflect on my time here, I’m struck by the fact that as much as things change – and they certainly have – many of our major challenges and opportunities remain the same.

Back in the ‘70s, my era here at U of I, three monumental, society-changing, broad themes dominated the news:

  • The first two are the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements; and
  • The last, game changing innovation, particularly in information technology and computer science.

All three brought not only massive change, but also, promises – many of which have been realized – but many of which, sadly, have not. And it’s hurting us. That is what I want to talk about today. That, and what we must do about it.

I’ll start with innovation. Game changing technology – it’s brought us everything from email, to cell phones, the digital camera and Apple Computer – to name just a few things.

The U.S. has been in the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship – the world leader in creating new marketplaces for many years.

Unfortunately, today, despite astounding technological advancements – and more every day – our country is falling behind.  

Recently, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation or ITIF studied the innovation and competitiveness of 43 nations. Rankings were based on the number of scientists and researchers, number of new companies created, the education of the work population and other factors.

Singapore was ranked number one, followed by Finland and Sweden. The United States was ranked fourth.  

And that’s not all. ITIF also compared its 2009 scores to the recent study, and observed that China had demonstrated the most rapid change or velocity. So, China was ranked first in rate of change – the United States second to last.

This data is quite disturbing. The problems confronting our country are not diminishing. Think about some of the significant events we’re facing in health care, cyber, energy sufficiency, continued global economic weakness and competition, unrest and outbreaks in numerous parts of the world. These all call for more innovation, not less.

And even more importantly:

Our global positioning in terms of creativity, innovation and rate of progress speaks to the vitality of our economy; job generation; preserving and advancing our way of life. It speaks to our country’s future.

Recently, we have had a spotty record in this area and if we don’t get our house in order, even maintaining our current ranking will be difficult, as others in the global economy pass us by.

Before I discuss possible solutions, I want to take you back to the other two big news stories – the civil rights and women’s movements. These seismic crusades paved the way for minorities and women to finally have the same dreams and opportunities as everyone else and make equal contributions.

At the time, women accounted for only 27 percent of the U.S. workforce and only 8 percent worked in STEM fields. We were often encouraged, as I was, to focus more narrowly on traditional roles, such as teachers, librarians, nurses and secretaries. While these are indeed vital professions, we recognize today the importance of allowing everyone to pursue their own ambitions.  

I was fortunate. I knew early that I liked math; my father was an engineer, a patent attorney and a great role model. So, while I was one of only a handful of women at the University, students here were judged on their brains and the quality of their work.   

This showed great foresight on the University’s part. Since then, studies have shown that opening up career choices to all people helps our society. Diversity and inclusion generates significant business success and the innovation so important in today’s global environment.

Given this, one would think we would have seen dramatic increases in the numbers of women and minorities in STEM fields. Unfortunately that’s not been the case.

In 2011, the Commerce Department reported that only one in seven engineers was female. And, women have seen no employment growth in STEM jobs since 2000. Today, women hold only 27 percent of all computer science jobs.

It starts long before that. Less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science go to women, even though female graduates hold 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees. And, it starts way before that.

We know that students with early interests in science and math are more likely to gravitate to STEM. However here too, we haven’t advanced very far since I was in school.

According to the Business Higher Education Forum, only 17 percent of our nation’s 12th graders are math proficient and interested in a STEM career, with girls particularly underrepresented.

Minority 12th graders have a strong interest in STEM, which is encouraging. But the data also indicates a lower proficiency in Math, which could be a barrier to pursuing a career in technology.

The problem is not limited to women and minorities. Of all students who enter college as STEM majors, data show that only about half choose to work in STEM after graduation.

This is truly unfortunate, because while the job market as a whole is tight, the demand for applicants with STEM degrees such as computer science is very high.

The Labor Department predicts that by 2020 there will be nearly one and a half million computer specialist job openings. Yet U.S. universities will produce qualified graduates for less than a third of those jobs.

Overall, the number of students interested in STEM falls short of what our nation needs to propel our economy, to protect our national security and sustain our leadership in an increasingly competitive world.

Clearly, it’s in the best interests of our economy and our country that more young people, particularly women and minorities, gravitate to STEM careers and stick with them.  

We need these students, we need to encourage them, nurture and mentor them. Not only for our society – but also, because STEM is where the jobs are. And by the way, these are generally higher paying jobs than average.

So, how can we make this happen?

Debates abound as to why women don’t gravitate to STEM as readily as other fields. I don’t believe as some might that it’s due to some genetic inclination. Rather, I think it’s more a factor of not being exposed at an early age. We’re not encouraged to believe that science and technology are fun.

Which is ironic, since not only is engineering one of the highest paying professions, according to a recent Washington Post survey – it’s also one of the more personally rewarding.  

Somehow, we must communicate to girls and boys of all backgrounds from kindergarten through college and career – that science, technology, engineering and math are exciting, stimulating and rewarding – because they are not getting the message.

While TV and the movies are starting to portray a few women as scientists – solving crimes or going up in outer space – and there are minorities in these media roles – we need more real life role models in our schools and companies. We need more outreach and mentoring programs for girls and boys of all backgrounds, ethnicities and races, to encourage early exploration in science and math.

We must give our science teachers expanded tools to help those students get interested and remain engaged from kindergarten through high school to college. Inspired science teachers can motivate students. I know mine did.

And industry must do its part as well.

I’m proud to say that my company and others in the aerospace and defense industry actively support programs that strive to get young women and minorities excited about STEM.

For example, we’re the sponsor of the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot program, an international high school and middle school computing competition that’s designed to educate and inspire students about cyber security. CyberPatriot specifically targets the critical shortage of cyber security professionals in the workforce.

I’m also proud that of the 12 senior leaders who report to our chairman, president and CEO Wes Bush, six are women. As one of the six, I was the first to run a multi-billion dollar business reporting to the CEO – one that delivers advanced software and hardware systems to our government.

This year Northrop Grumman ranked 28th on Diversity Inc. magazine’s annual list of the Top 50 Companies and was the top aerospace and defense company. Despite these achievements, we continue to have a sharp focus on improving our diversity and inclusion metrics.

This is truly an important issue. We all must work to ensure that more young people are inspired, educated and seek careers in STEM fields – and stay in them as well.

If you’ve a sister, daughter, relative or friend, who has an interest in STEM disciplines, encourage and mentor them. If you’re a student majoring in a STEM field, I strongly encourage you to stay the course, particularly if you are a woman or a minority. The opportunities are tremendous, and we all will benefit from your point of view and diversity of thought.

Hopefully, you’ll find as I did that this is a rewarding and challenging career choice. I’m very fortunate to love what I do and to work for a company with wonderful people who make a difference and are an integral part of increasing global security and keeping our country competitive.

I’ve run through a lot of statistics in a short period of time. Let me summarize what I believe it all means.

Four decades ago, exciting cultural movements and technological advancements brought many positive changes to our society. But we’ve not fully realized the promise of the women’s and civil rights movements; nor are we sufficiently leveraging the power of innovation to remain the world leader in the face of increasing threats to our security and way of life.

The answer lies in what our country has always trusted to solve tough problems – the brains, skills and ingenuity of our people. Today there’s increasing recognition that we need ALL of our people – men and women from all walks of life, nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and all ages – to confront the many issues we face. Multiple studies have shown that diversity fosters creativity and innovation – and that countries with a strong health care system and education for ALL people – particularly women – are more stable, and safer.

We need ground-breaking innovation, not only in terms of technology, but also in how we address these challenges with fewer dollars. That is our fundamental dilemma. Innovative thinking is urgently needed.

Increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM related fields and better harvesting their natural innovation skills can help put the U.S. back in the forefront of global economic leadership and protect our national security. This is not a “nice-to-do,” it’s a strategic imperative for our country.

Today, we’re relying on your generation, as our country did on MY generation, to take those critical next steps of our journey. And, you must, because you are our future. We’re counting on you to help us reclaim the American dream.