Women in Technology: Meeting the Challenge for the Next Generation

With the fall semester well underway, many students are assessing their academic strengths and interests, measuring them against possible majors and long-term plans. Unfortunately, most young women will rule out paths leading to careers in technology and computer science, areas where jobs will be plentiful and creativity in demand for the foreseeable future.

Gender diversity among leadership teams and the broader workforce offers demonstrated advantages for innovative thinking, job satisfaction, and corporate bottom lines. Computer science jobs provide intellectual challenges and opportunities for meaningful and well-paid work for men and women alike. Yet despite recent surges in college-level computer science enrollment, just 16% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women in 2015. The percentage of women in computing jobs has actually declined over the last 25 years, and now stands at roughly 25% in both industry and academia.

Causes for this gender gap vary. The disparity between boys and girls showing early interest in computer programming is evident well before college. Consider statistics regarding the high school Advanced Placement (AP) exam in computer science, where boys outnumber girls 4-to-1. Indeed, in three states, not a single girl took the computer science exam in 2014. California recently passed legislation intended to expand computer science education in grades K-12 and improve access to such classes, now only available in 25% of California high schools and found disproportionately in upper-income districts.

Such initiatives are important, for opportunity looms large. By 2020, 1 million more computing jobs are expected to be available than qualified applicants to fill them. Pay is more attractive in the tech sector than in many fields, although women still face wage discrimination. Glassdoor reports a substantial gap, with women making 28% less than men in comparable positions in computer programming. AAUW agrees, with a study showing women in computing are paid 87% of what men make.

The “pipeline” explanation—that girls and young women are not graduating with computer science degrees—is true but insufficient. Many tech companies and other employers now offer flexible work hours and equitable family leave; some universities allow parents to stop the tenure clock to care for young children (although it turns out this policy actually disadvantages women). Yet lack of retention and promotion of women, especially in technical roles, persists, even in companies with public commitments to increase diversity.

Why should we care? Aside from philosophical arguments about the value of equal representation for women, purely economic arguments suggest we leave ideas and money on the table by not fostering inclusion more effectively. A study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that as of 2010, more than 81 percent of patents include no women; what’s more, women represented just 7 percent of founders in the top companies receiving venture-capital investments between 2009 and 2015. Given that studies show the business advantages of gender-diverse teams, these statistics suggest the U.S. economy could benefit from actively promoting more robust integration of women in technical fields.

What can be done? Research studies, op-eds, and other publications opine on reasons for lack of diversity from college through career in technical fields and offer suggestions for incremental solutions. Aside from addressing issues of unconscious bias in hiring and sexist attitudes in the workplace, and promoting policies to encourage work-life balance for all employees, a few more suggestions follow:

1. Cultivate strong networks among women at all levels, both with peers and those coming before or behind them. Women report feeling alone and isolated in classes and junior professional positions, and would benefit from being able to share experiences and receive (and give) mentorship across levels of seniority.

2. Encourage college women to participate in class discussion, both in person and online. Studies show women are more likely than men to ask questions but far less likely to answer them. This practice in overcoming the confidence gap will serve women well when working in teams later in their professional lives.

3. Engineering and technical fields that demonstrate social impact, such as emerging disciplines in humanitarian engineering or development engineering, are more populated by women. Universities should continue to invest in curricula and hands-on programs devoted to these applied fields, as well as promote the social impact of traditional engineering fields where such impact is often underappreciated.

4. Improve paths to degrees or certification programs using community college resources, online education, and corporate training. More than half of community college students are women, and women often have less traditional or direct career paths, especially when balancing family responsibilities.

5. Strengthen efforts to retain and promote women throughout their careers, as well as actively recruit those who choose to return to careers after breaks in their work history.

Reducing the gap will require effort from industry executives, higher education administrators and faculty, K-14 leaders and teachers, and families. Careers in technology and computing offer opportunities for intellectual growth, economic mobility, and meaningful contributions to products and services that will shape our collective future. We will all benefit from the social and economic impact of bolstering gender diversity across the tech sector and beyond.

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