Not too long ago, a friend and I had a conversation about the pros and cons of single-sex higher ed institutions. Having attended a co-ed university, I staunchly defended the benefits of rubbing shoulders with men in those formative years, because well, that's what reality looks like. So why be sheltered from learning how to navigate those spaces for four years?
My friend, a Seven Sisters graduate and firm believer in the profound impact of single-sex education, eventually struck a chord. Imagine, she says, a world where STEM classrooms have a female majority. A world where no woman feels intimidated or discouraged from excelling in computer science, engineering, math, or physics. Where women speak up, lead, and challenge each other in the sciences. Where professors could not unconsciously expect men to have the answers, and where there were only women to mentor. A classroom, where even unconscious gender bias could not take place.
And, I had to admit. That concept was so far-removed from anything I had experienced that it hadn't even occurred to me. Female-dominated spaces existed but were hard to come by. And eventually, when I transitioned from the nonprofit sector to the tech world, those gaps were accentuated. From offices to conferences, meetings, and gatherings, women were a rare sight.
More Women in Tech Companies, Less Women in Tech Roles
There have been significant strides made lately to highlight and help close the gender gap in tech. From movements like Lean in or groups like Women in Tech, emphasis has been placed on creating women's spaces and mentorship for women in tech. Simultaneously, there has been a growing movement to encourage young girls to pursue interests in the sciences.
And while we've seen more women join the ranks of tech companies, the number of women in actual tech roles is still lacking. More women in the overall workforce doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with more female tech employees. A company like Yelp, for instance, boasts an impressive 50 percent of female workforce -- one of the highest ratios officially reported by a tech company. What that percentage doesn't show though, is that only 1 in every 10 tech employee is a woman, which then leaves Yelp as one of the least gender-balanced major tech company.
This trend follows other major tech companies, which have less female techies than their overall diversity statistics would suggest. At Google, they comprise 18 percent of the company's tech employees. Facebook's ratio drops to 16 percent. And Twitter sits at a lowly 10 percent.
One would think that more women in leadership roles in tech companies would have an impact or direct correlation with more women in tech roles. However, that hasn't been the case either. Twitter, with a 21 percent female leadership, still has 10 percent of female tech employees. Pandora, with a more favorable female leadership at 39 percent, only has 18 percent of women in the tech workforce.
A Pipeline Problem?
A typical justification for the gender gap in technology is defining it as a "pipeline problem." It's not that companies discriminate based on gender, but it's that there just aren't enough women with computer science backgrounds. And, as the numbers suggest, that may not be too far from the truth.
Indeed, what's surprising is that the number of women in the computer science field has actually decreased over time. While more women have entered higher ed over time, less and less have shown an interest in computer science. In the '80s, women in computer science programs reached 30 percent, sometimes peaking at 37 percent, while today, that number is as low as 18 percent in the US. That sharp decline is surprisingly only manifested in computer science programs and cannot be found in other academic areas.
Tackling Gendered Socialization
So, how do we tackle the gender gap in tech?
While the gender gap in tech companies is specifically visible and accounted for, it is simply a window into a wider societal phenomenon on how we raise girls in the world.
Gendered socialization begins in kindergarten and in middle school when teachers depend on boys to be logical and on girls not to be. The societal norms and concepts are constantly reinforced either at home or in schools, and steer young girls away from STEM capabilities while simultaneously encouraging them in boys. And when women push past those constraints, somehow still determined to pursue their interest despite countless subliminal messages along the way, they eventually enter the workforce, only to face the lack of female leadership and mentorship. This, unsurprisingly, leads to relatively short tenures.
If, indeed, there is a declining interest in computer science programs, which inevitably leads to narrower hiring pools, then does the answer lie in the avid push for women's spaces? As my friend argued, it isn't that female dominated spaces shelter you from the world, but it's that they allow you to develop and grow without internalizing all the gendered stereotypes and socialization that the world conditions you to.