Tech industry struggles to court women, but progress is slow
Many people were disappointed when Google, Inc. released its demographics data in May, showing that only 30 percent of its employees are women and just 21 percent of its people in leadership roles are female. Google isn’t alone, however. The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) reported early this year that women hold only 26 percent of all professional IT-related jobs in the U.S., up just 1 percent from 2010 and far below the 57 percent of professional jobs that women hold in the U.S.
While the ascent of women into tech leadership roles in recent years has generated a lot of press — in 2012 Virginia Rometty was promoted to CEO of IBM and Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo! Inc., and in 2013 Renée James became President of Intel Corp. — they amount to a few bright spots in a sea of discouraging statistics.
In the months after Google made its announcement, Facebook Inc., Yahoo!, and LinkedIn Corp. reported similar statistics. Google’s official blog admitted, “Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.” Facebook’s newsroom announcement conceded: “As these numbers show, we have more work to do – a lot more.”
Alison Griswold of Slate suggests that the timing of these releases and the mea culpas that followed are part of a herd mentality: Once Google released its data, other tech companies were less apprehensive about doing the same, betting that the burden of pubic scrutiny would not fall on any one company, but on the entire tech industry. Furthermore, if tech companies failed to confess to their diversity demographics, their silence would raise suspicion.
Regardless of their motivation, the gender gap is an industry wide-issue: In 2013, women held “about 20 percent of all computer science jobs. A tiny 7 percent of CIOs are female,” reports Fortune.com’s Anne Fischer. If all tech companies are under scrutiny, all companies need to improve together — publicly — or be left in the dust of their more inclusive comrades.
Company Policy Reform
Transparency may not be a cure-all, but it could be the first serious step toward getting a grip on a rampant problem. Telle Whitney, President and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute insists, “Companies must hold themselves more accountable.” This means regular assessment and active change.
Penny Herscher, CEO of analytics firm FirstRain explains that even when women are hired, many end up leaving the company — even if they enjoy their work. She cites 2010 NCSIT research that found that 56 percent of women in IT positions leave their jobs within 10 years, which is more than double the rate of men. Herscher recommends that solutions should focus on bringing more women into tech companies and keeping them there, which means reforming promotion, hiring, and training practices. Specifically, she recommends:
– Emphasizing to recruiters the importance of finding talented women;
– Making diversity a priority on the management team to promote mentorship and decision-making;
– Implementing diversity training to suss out unconscious bias and offer tools that help managers adapt their leadership styles to the needs of a multi-gender team; and
– Providing career development training for the whole company that emphasizes inclusion.
Diversity programs at top tech firms
A variety of well-known tech companies have programs in place that are similar to the ones Herscher describes:
– Cisco System Inc.’s cultivates their female coworkers through action networks, which are designed to bring female employees together, offering them career development, mentoring, and networking resources. Cisco has a particular network devoted to female employees that are interested in technology and engineering.
– The Hewlett Packard Co.’s HP Ascend program offers advanced opportunities, like overseas job rotations, to female directors and vice presidents. HP has also incorporated women into its leadership team, most notably by appointing Meg Whitman CEO and Cathie Lesjack CFO.
– The Technical Leadership Forum at IBM works to help female tech executives mentor the technical women they manage to advance their careers. Additional initiatives include a Women Inventor’s Community and a “Building Relationship and Influence” networking and leadership skills program, as well as the Super Women’s Group, which is intended to “provide an inspirational community” for women at IBM.
– With less than a 2 percent voluntary turnover rate among female technologies, Intel Corp. was named the Anita Borg’s institute’s Top Company for Women in Computing in 2013. Its program address women at all stages of their careers. The Rotation Engineer program helps women get more experience earlier in their careers. The Command Presence Workshop educates mid-career employees about how to handle technical meetings. The Women Principal Engineer and Fellows Forum educates senior women about networking and coaching.
– Twitter Inc.’s Women in Engineering Group is made up of women and men from all parts of the company who are committed to an inclusive atmosphere. It also underwrites programs that encourage women and girls to pursue technical careers.
STEM Education Reform
Google released its numbers with an explanation of the systemic problems that the industry faces. “Women earn 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States. Blacks and Hispanics each make up under 10 percent of U.S. college grads and each collect fewer than 10 percent of degrees in computer science majors. So we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in education,” Google said in its blog post.
Google’s explanation is echoed by other tech giants.
In a 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg commented that tech has unique obstacles to overcome in the low percentage of women who go into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields and particularly computer science. “If we got women at the same percentage as men into computer science, you would halve or potentially close the gap in the computer scientists needed right now in our country,” she said. Indeed, a study by the Anita Borg Institute in that same year showed women received only 18.2 percent of all computer science and 18.4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2010 in the U.S.
Why aren’t more women interested in the computer science field? The reason has a lot to do with confidence, according to Professor Janet E. Burge, PhD, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Wesleyan University. “One of my best students stopped by my office early last year to chat,” she said. “I suggested she apply to Google but she never did; she just didn’t feel confident enough in her skills for the interview and took a job elsewhere, never applying to Google at all even though she felt it was her ‘dream company.'” Burge added that the student, “wasn’t just my best female student in the class she took from me — she was the best student of all of them, by far!”
Burge worries that the publicity around major tech companies’ diversity demographics might actually further discourage young women from pursuing computer science degrees. So how can tech companies encourage young women to not just apply for their positions, but to pursue tech careers in the first place?
Many people believe the answer lies in starting STEM education early. Groups like Google’s Made with Code, Code.org. (which has investors like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Microsoft Corp.) and Yes We Code enable young men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds to access computer science and computer programming at a young age, inciting their confidence and interest before they have a chance to become discouraged.
Perhaps news stories in recent years about women taking the helm of major tech companies could also be the first signs of a wellspring that will alter the whole industry. Perhaps daughters and granddaughters will wonder what took their mothers and grandmothers so long. Change may be slow, but with any luck, the combination of public changes and efforts by leading companies will bring more balance to the tech world — spurring innovation while filling the need for qualified tech workers for years to come.
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