Getting to The Root of the Tech Industry's Gender Gap
A technology educator in Silicon Valley speaks from experience.
Although gender balance in the workplace has evened steadily in the last century, the proportion of women in technology fields has actually regressed. In fact, I see first-hand how the tech world fails women at every step of the way due to cultural barriers and lack of mentorship.
The education gap narrows, in some cases.
Some people in education assume that women and girls learn differently from their male counterparts and believe that the gender imbalance can be solved by teaching coding separately and differently to girls. Programs like Made with Code take this approach. This assumption has been proven incorrect in numerous studies and trends in college enrollment do not support it.
In 1985 there were 14 boys for every girl in the top 0.01 percent of math test takers, while today that gap has closed to two-and-a-half to one. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women began outstripping men in the number of college degrees earned at all levels over the course of the 1980s. It is not reasonable to think that innate gender differences could change so dramatically in so short a time. We must conclude that cultural shifts can drive changes in gender-based achievement gaps.
It stands to reason that women majoring in tech fields would increase proportional to the rise in overall college enrollment numbers. But that has not been the case. The number of women getting degrees in computer science grew steadily until the mid-eighties, then dropped over the next 25 years, according to the National Science Foundation. Cultural expectations seem to play a large role in this persistent gap. Data shows that girls with role models in tech will gravitate towards those fields.
The need for role models.
Earlier this year Johns Hopkins University released the results of a study indicating that black students were significantly less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in third through fifth grades. Role models in educational settings have a huge impact in shaping the way young people imagine their futures and make decisions. Likewise, when girls have female role models who excel in technology, math and science, those girls tend to maintain interest in those fields.
Although the shortage of women role models would appear to be a chicken-and-egg scenario, it is not as profound a problem as it seems. The solution starts by training teachers at all grade levels in basic programming literacy. These teachers will become relatable role models who can teach students real skills. Directing children to role models such as highly successful professionals or historical figures can set unachievable standards of success and sometimes make the problem worse.
The workplace problem.
Unfortunately, women who do participate in technology-focused educational programs often fail to pursue higher education and careers in technology fields. And those who do enter careers in tech are often neglected when it comes to mentorship, and it shows. When women are passed over for mentorship roles, promotions and raises in favor of male colleagues, it reinforces their lack of confidence in their math and science skills and leads to a higher attrition rate than in other careers.
The lack of women in technology isn’t due to a lack of ability or a different learning style, it’s because women have very few mentors in technology education and careers to support and encourage them. Fortunately there are concrete steps that businesses and education institutions can take to solve these issues.
What can be done.
The famous leaked memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” by Google employee James Damore, seems to assume that women want to trade in one dominant culture (male-focused) for another (female-focused). As long as businesses operate with one dominant culture, someone is bound to be excluded. If we build workplaces that value a variety of different styles, we dispel the idea that including one group means excluding others.
In order for women to thrive in technical careers, they need to be welcomed into inclusive work environments. This does not mean tailoring work environments specifically for women, but instead creating an environment where a variety of work styles are rewarded. This begins by providing support for women in the workplace by fostering their skills, educating them to facilitate advancement and investing in long-term employees. But the work doesn’t end there.
One of the biggest improvements businesses can make is modifying expectations around work/life balance. Technology jobs tend to be demanding in terms of time and mental energy and like many other tech employees, I’m not sure how I could do my job with a young child at home. Like it or not, the burden of family support rests on women in this country, and therefore family leave and childcare are critical in welcoming women into the tech workplace.
Although companies such as Netflix, Adobe and Microsoft are already making strides in this area, the numbers indicate that we still have a long way to go. By providing for childcare and family leave, as well as mentoring and promoting women, businesses can help decrease the technology gender gap as well as improve their bottom line. According to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, workplaces that enact changes to benefit women become more profitable.
Once women become more active and respected participants in technical conversations, the missing role models for girls will appear. From there it’s only a short leap for those women and girls to push for educational programs that include everyone. In this case, change really can come from the top, and I believe it is the only way to close the technology gender gap.