It's the Classroom, Dummy, Not the Conference Room

3 imperatives from a former Googler for bridging tech's gender gap much earlier than is typical.

learn more about Melissa Kaufman

By Melissa Kaufman

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In the summer of 1999, fresh out of high school, I had the good fortune to sit down for coffee with Patty Stonesifer, the then-co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Related: Fellow Women in Tech: Where Do We Go From Here?

Four years prior, Stonesifer had been named one of the 25 Most Influential People in America by Time magazine. Needless to say, when I met her, I sat there like a sponge, absorbing every ounce of knowledge and advice I could before heading off to college. And I'll never forget the advice she gave:

"The tech world needs more women," she told me bluntly. "You need to study computer science."

I took Stonsifer's advice to heart. But from my time at Dartmouth to my career at Google and my subsequent experience in Silicon Valley, I soon realized that the conventional approach to building an inclusive tech workforce was essentially backward: Indeed, only 3 percent of tech startups today are founded by women. That's why reversing this "bro"-programming trend ("bro-gramming" for short) won't start in boardrooms. And yes, that may elicit dismay from those who believe they can force inclusivity upon big tech.

But the fact is that inclusivity simply won't be driven by accelerators or VCs or by the passionate pleas at high-profile speaking events. Instead, where it really has to start is in the classroom.

Why it's got to start in the classroom

Whitney Wolfe, founder and CEO of Bumble, expressed a similar sentiment in 2016 when she observed that gender imbalance doesn't start at the office, but rather should be addressed much earlier than the age women are when they enter the workplace.

Whether it's in middle school, high school or college, the time young women spend in classrooms is formative. Accordingly, there are three essential strategies we must all embrace if we want to get serious about gender equality in tech -- and none involves shaming corporate America or trumpeting self-righteous virtues on social media.

Prioritize mentorship, because you can't be what you can't see.

"You can't be what you can't see," Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, has said. This is especially true for young women seeking female role models in a tech industry crowded with males.

Related: Keeping Talented Women in the Tech Workforce

While classes and real-world experience are necessary ingredients for success, supplementing hard skills with mentorship amounts to rocket fuel for a young woman's (and really anyone's) tech career. Forming a bond with a successful woman who has been in her own shoes is often the missing link when a young woman is on the fence about pursuing tech. In fact, a research report from Development Dimensions International (DDI) showed that nearly 70 percent of the businesswomen it studied ranked mentoring as important to career success.

A stellar example of structured mentorship is Girls in Tech's Mentorship Program. It's a customized program that pairs tech-minded young women all around the globe with mentors, who assist with networking, skill-building and career direction.

And, interestingly, the willingness mentors show, to share that assistance, may strike young women as a surprise. Yet that willingness makes sense because people actually like to talk about themselves -- that's human nature. So, for any young woman seeking a mentor, who has no access to a Fortune 100 CEO, simply striking up a conversation with a successful woman from her hometown can often be infinitely more valuable than any class.

Offer opportunities, not platitudes.

One of the toughest challenges in tech culture is bridging idealism with action. Social media has made it incredibly easy to trumpet platitudes about diversity and inclusion. You've seen them before: We value diversity! You can do it! Women are the future!

Those are cop-outs.

Uprooting years of gender inequity in tech requires more than a few kind words. It requires tangible opportunities to experiment, build and explore. Take Microsoft's DigiGirlz programs, for example. DigiGirlz High Tech Camps give young women firsthand experience developing websites and other cutting-edge technologies, through a series of workshops and demonstrations. Additionally, DigiGirlz Day connects students with Microsoft employees who share career advice and product demonstrations.

At the university level, we launched the Propel Program at Northwestern to provide guidance and micro-grants for young women to experiment with startup ideas. The six-month program takes them from ideation to launch, ultimately empowering them with the confidence they need to take their ideas to the next level.

Leverage the power of peers.

I was recently introducing an African American woman student to our startup lab -- The Garage -- at Northwestern when she told me, "I've never seen anybody that looked like me in a space like this before." It's touching moments like that one that reaffirm why it's essential to address education before addressing the workplace.

When young women see their peers launching startups, writing code and leading teams, the confidence that that proximity creates has a viral impact. Nearly every school has a variety of women student organizations, and uniting them under a common bond is far more effective than relying on them to do so alone.

Sure, "strength in numbers" sounds clichéd, but camaraderie has profound psychological benefits that can inspire people, especially young women, to break through barriers. Getting more women into tech is no exception.

Why are these steps so important? Because diverse teams, especially in tech, are unequivocally better equipped to solve problems and ultimately give organizations a competitive advantage. It's just that simple.

Related: Why Gender Diversity In Tech Matters

If we want to get serious about reversing the "bro"-gramming trend, we have to go beyond quotas or playing the blame game with history, companies and "the system." Instead, we must connect with young women early on through mentorship, opportunities and communities in which they can thrive. And that has to start early, in schools, not in the workplace.

Melissa Kaufman

Executive Director, The Garage at Northwestern

Melissa Kaufman is the executive director of The Garage at Northwestern. She is a former Googler, startup veteran and entrepreneur with a decade of experience at consumer technologies companies in Silicon Valley. Currently, she is a committee member of ChicagoNEXT (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s technology council); a member of P33, the Chicago Technology Initiative; and a venture partner at Chicago Ventures. She was named to Chicago Inno’s 50 on Fire in 2017 and Crain’s Tech 50 in 2018. 

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