A Tech Leader’s Guide on responding to the question: Where are the women in tech?
I recently attended an all-male panel of local tech leaders who, when asked about how they were addressing the issue of the lack of women in tech, provided some pretty cringe-worthy responses. Afterwards, I talked to one of the panelists. He said he is uncomfortable with this question because online discussions of women in tech have become so “toxic”. I can empathize - imagine being a woman wading into these toxic waters. That is why it is critical for tech leaders to take the initiative in resetting the tone of this conversation. So I want to share what kind of response I’m looking for when I ask a tech leader what they are doing to address gender equity and the lack of diversity in tech.
Acknowledge the issue
Everyone on the panel agreed that it was an issue. Of course, whether you are looking within your own company or the nationwide trends, it’s an issue that is pretty difficult to ignore (NCWIT, By the Numbers):
- 18% of CS undergraduate degrees recipients were women in 2012
- 26% of computing workforce were women in 2013
- 3% of computing workforce were African-American women in 2013
It is very important to acknowledge the issue and not discount the impact it is having on the culture, business and future of tech. ”If current trends continue, by 2018 the industry will only be able to fill half of its available jobs with candidates holding computer science bachelor’s degrees from U.S. universities” (Women in IT: The facts).
Understand the issue
This gets much trickier because at its root, the issue is cultural. As a male leader in tech, it may really seem like a mystery to you why there aren’t more women interested in a career in tech. Heck, as a woman in tech for almost 25 years, I found it a mystery myself when I first learned in 2010 that the rate of women graduating with CS degrees fell from 37% in the late 80’s to 18%. But once the issue is acknowledged, it’s really time to do some homework. Here are a few excerpts from STEM job preparedness pipeline: Addressing education & culture locally to get you started.
Mostly gone are the days of active gender discrimination and blatant gender bias, but subtle gender bias still exists and is even more challenging to address. In her blog post titled, “My experiences in tech: Death by 1000 paper cuts,” Julie Pagano explains how this subtle discrimination feels and builds up from being the only girl in class to “inside” jokes at tech conferences to assumptions about roles at work. It may seem that subtle gender bias is an improvement to outright sexism, but recent research shows that it might be more damaging. In a research study comparing the effects of ambiguous versus unambiguous discrimination, the results indicated that “it is more difficult for targets of ambiguous discrimination – as well as for others observing them – to realize that prejudicial treatment may have played a role causing in their negative outcomes, or to note that their disadvantage may be due to factors outside their control” (The dark side of ambiguous discrimination).
Stereotypes have been hounding STEM fields for a very long time, especially in computing and engineering. These fields are seen as being dominated by “highly intelligent misfits, overwhelmingly male, who work alone, glued to a computer screen, solving boring, irrelevant problems” (Dot Diva). In the late 1990s, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher began to investigate the disparity between men and women in the study of computer science. In their book, “Unlocking the Clubhouse”, they write “very early in life, computing is claimed as male territory. At each step from early childhood through college, computing is both actively claimed as ‘guy stuff’ by boys and men and passively ceded by girls and women”. So while in 2012, teenage girls have been found to use computers and the Internet at rates similar to boys, they are five times less likely to consider a technology-related career (Digital Inclusion 2012). In 2007, WGBH and the NSF began a study to answer the question, “Why is interest in computer science declining in U.S. colleges?” They were looking for messages that would appeal specifically to the under-represented groups of African American boys and Hispanic girls, but they found very little racial/ethnic differences in young people’s attitudes towards computer science. Instead, they discovered that positive or negative attitudes towards computer science generally ran along gender lines. Most college-bound males had a positive opinion about computing while most females were significantly less interested and had negative opinions about it (New image for computing).
Lack of Role Models
Role models and mentors have been identified as a major component to building confidence and keeping girls engaged in pursuing their interests in STEM (Girls in IT: The facts). In 2013, a study by Catherine Riegle-Crumb showed that local women in STEM role models were important to local girls interested in studying STEM. “What we found is that in communities that had a higher percentage of women in the labor force who are working in science, technology, engineering and math, that in those schools, girls were as likely as boys to take physics, or even more likely” (Why aren’t more girls attracted to physics?). Teenage girls growing up in communities where women are better represented in STEM are more likely to see them in public forums, school discussions and social settings and therefore the girls are able to see what they can potentially be. However, girls growing up in communities where most working women are not in STEM fields, do not see the possibilities that exist outside traditionally female-dominated fields like child care and nursing.
Address the issue
This is where the responses often seem to fall apart. If you don’t understand the issue, then when asked the question of how you are addressing it, you may be tempted to offer an immediate solution. Many respond by saying they have a limited pool of applicants and they can not give preferential treatment to women. This response highlights a lack of understanding of the scope of the issue. I know there are no easy solutions. I don’t want you to give preferential treatment to women applicants, I want you to join with other tech leaders to be part of the long-term solution to address the stereotypes, biases and lack of role models in the industry that keep girls and women away. What I would love to hear is one or more of the following responses:
- You recognize that gender stereotypes and biases rear their ugly heads during middle school, pushing many girls away, so your company supports programs that give girls positive, hands-on experience with tech while building a supportive community around them like Tech-Girls, CyberJutsu Girls, TechGirlz & Black Girls Code.
- You recognize that keeping girls engaged and excited about tech through high school is critical to keeping them in the pipeline and so your company supports organizations like Girls Who Code, ChickTech, 3D-GREES and other local high school programs that provide education and mentoring for girls.
- You recognize that in a university setting, women may be pulled in other directions where they feel more belonging, so your company supports organizations that promote connectedness on campus like Women in Tech (WIT) & Society of Women Engineers (SWE) organizations and activities like Pearl Hacks.
- You recognize that women returning to the workforce or looking to switch careers could be a valuable resource with support and training from programs like Girl Develop It, PyLadies & Women Learning Tech.
- You recognize the importance of ensuring your corporate culture is welcoming of diversity and so you seek out advice and counsel from industry experts like National Center for Women in Information & Technology (NCWIT) and the Anita Borg Institute.
Bottom line, there is no silver bullet to address the issue of gender equity and diversity in tech. What it requires is a combination of long-term effort, implementing creative, not business-as-usual ideas and the building of strong partnerships and collaborations across the pipeline.