Recently, I wrote of my delight at learning that the first computer programmers were women. I’ve continued to reflect on how women have held an historic role as true tech pioneers, and, yet, there still aren’t enough of us in tech right now. I’ve shared ideas before on how to increase the numbers of women tech leaders, but what about programmers? developers? UI designers? Walk into any tech company, and you’ll see rows and rows of men. Why is there not more diversity when we know that diversity is good for our companies? The answer to that question is something that companies cannot address even with the best of policies, because, unfortunately, too few women are pursuing careers in computer science. How do we address this issue?
This idea that tech needs to “woman up” isn’t mine alone. “We Need More Women in Tech: The Data Prove It” has stuck with me since its appearance in The Atlantic a couple of autumns ago. Among the statistics cited in that piece are: 57% of the workforce is female, but, in computing occupations, that number is only about 25%. 0.4% of female college students indicate a desire to study computer science (CS). The average wage in tech is 98% higher than the average private sector wage. That is an astounding number! Why aren’t women seizing the opportunity to advance financially as well as professionally in tech fields?
The data seem pretty dire, especially if you believe, like the article suggests, that, in 1985, 35% of undergraduate degrees in computer science were granted to women. Has the number of CS majors actually dropped over time? I’m not sure. I find that statistic a bit hard to believe, as most colleges didn’t even have an official CS major in 1985. My alma mater (UC Berkeley) was one exception. Berkeley had CS when I graduated in 1984, at a time when most schools’ CS remained in schools of engineering or in other departments rather than standing on its own. For certain, nowhere near 37% of us were women, and not a single woman instructor were found in my CS major – even at a time in which Laura Tyson taught economics and in which I had women instructors in courses outside of CS, math, and engineering. Regardless, the problem remains that, today, fewer than 1% of CS majors are females. That is just unacceptable.
How do we get to a place where women really do comprise 37% — or more – of CS majors? Here are some ideas:
Start young. The Atlantic mentions a program for high school girls called Aspirations in Computing. Another outstanding one is Black Girls Code for an even broader age range, 7-17. When faced with a choice of enrichment opportunities for our daughters, considering coding as easily as ballet will make a huge difference and is part of the gender-neutral approach that propelled my own success.
Making room for non-CS majors in the tech landscape will be healthy for us all. I’d love to see more women majoring in CS, but women can major in physics, math, or even philosophy and become great programmers or tech leaders. Some of my best developers have been physics or math majors.
Recognize the importance of creativity. One thing that all of those whom I consider successful developers have in common is how they combine science with art and creativity. A lot has to do with abstract thinking, pattern recognition, and associative thinking. Logic and philosophy courses and abstract math are excellent subjects to help develop those skills.
Note how CS has changed over time. CS is no longer a general field today anymore than physics is. There are common foundational concepts, but a UI developer needs to have a different skill set from an operating systems developer. That said, the fun in CS is its non-rigidity and ability to apply cross-disciplines to problem solving – something with which women are known to be great!
Now, it’s your turn: what do you think we can do “woman up” the tech landscape?