Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama delivers a keynote address during the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose, California, on June 5, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
By Amy Blankson
Picture this: You’re in the middle of watching a movie when it’s revealed that the fate of the entire world rests in the hands of a computer scientist who must deactivate a nuclear bomb by manically entering a series of complicated code. All eyes are on them as onlookers wait with bated breath to see if they will live to take another.
Who plays this role in your mind? Is it a nerdy guy with glasses in a t-shirt and jeans or is it an intelligent, capable woman? It’s likely that your initial depiction of this character was the former and that’s okay. In reality, that character likely is a male, considering only 18% of current computer science graduates are women. Shocking? Yes. But why is it so important?
Research suggests that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs in the computing sector and only enough graduates to fill 29% of those roles — 3% of which will be women. This presents an incredible opportunity for women to join the boys club that is Silicon Valley.
If we want to take advantage of these opportunities and rectify the gender gap now and in the future, it’s important to figure out why women aren’t choosing positions in technology and what we can do to change that.
It Begins In The Classroom
Former First Lady Michelle Obama recently spoke at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference to a largely male audience about the lack of women in Silicon Valley. Obama attributed the lack of diversity to an issue that begins in the classroom and urged those in the room to help. “Girls walk away from tech and science..….There’s something about how this subject is being taught. You guys are smarter than that. You’re better than that, let’s figure it out,” Obama pressed.
Although altering the diversity of an industry is no small feat, Obama was entirely correct in her assertion that the lack of women in the technology sector is an issue that begins well before women enter the workforce. Research suggests that three main obstacles hold girls and women back from pursuing careers in tech.
- It’s a Man’s World: It’s a tale as old as time; math and science are for men and the humanities and arts are more suitable for women. Many female students continue to feel this way even today, which means something needs to shift in regard to how these subjects are approached and taught in school. GirlsWhoCode aims to change that by offering summer immersion programs for girls to develop a sense of identity and confidence around their coding skills.
- The ‘Boring’ Factor: Although some female students enjoy and even excel in STEM subjects, many shy away from these roles due to lack of information. Some students wonder whether a job in technology will stifle their creativity, be boring or fail to make any real difference in the world — also suggesting a need for advanced education.
- Invisible Role Models: While 34% of students aim to emulate someone who holds a prominent position in their desired field of work, only 22% of women could name a famous female working in technology. This disparity makes it nearly impossible for young girls to envision themselves in the tech space. How can we emulate those who we cannot see?
Setting Girls Up To Succeed in Tech
Educational institutions and technology companies must come together to alter the current system that has largely failed our youth if we want to inspire girls and women to pursue careers in technology and improve the existing gender gap.
- Early Entry into STEM: While female students’ interest in computer science tends to decrease over time, the most significant drop takes place between the ages of 13 and 17. This has prompted advocates of computer science programs to push for middle school programs that educate and inspire youth to pursue careers in technology. Of the schools that currently have computer science programs, most begin in high school, at which point it is often too late to spark an interest. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Fred Wilson advocated for coding programs in school by comparing learning to code to learning a new language on his blog stating, “We continue to teach our kids French but we don’t teach them Ruby on Rails. Which do you think will help them more in the coming years?” Given the rapidly evolving world of technology, it makes sense that we equip our children with the tools they need to succeed; in 2017 that includes coding.
- Diversify Silicon Valley: Michelle Obama hit the nail on the head when she asked the men of Silicon Valley to make room at the table for women. If we want to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in technology, they have to feel comfortable to do so. Technology companies need to make a collective effort to diversify their companies, create alternative routes of entry and develop more inclusive policies suited for women. Apprenticeship programs and university partnerships provide female students the access and experience needed to step into the world of technology. The onus lies on the tech industry to get involved, educate youth, and inspire them to pursue a career in technology.
- Build Networks: Lastly, for the women brave enough to join the boys’ club, we need to build networks to support one another. It can be difficult to be heard as the only female in the room, but we need to keep trying if we want to inspire change. Networking with other women in tech can help us to feel empowered and supported in a room full of men as well as provide valuable insights and resources to further our careers. Resources like com now offer women career coaching, resume assistance, and even a system for tracking accomplishments over time to demonstrate their value.
The technology industry is a rapidly expanding, high-paying sector that holds significant opportunities for women. Although we face many barriers to entry, persistence, determination, and education will help current and future women to find their seat at the tech table.