Encouraging more women to become leaders in STEM-related fields remains a top priority for the tech industry even though progress has been spotty at best over the past two decades or so.
Part of this is due to the ingrained societal belief that women are not acclimated toward math and science, despite the basic untruth of that belief and the lengthy history of very accomplished female scientists. Think of groundbreaking thinkers like Katherine Johnson, Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace, who was not just the first woman to write a computer program but the first person to do it – in 1843 no less.
Missed Economic Opportunity
This makes today’s lack of female representation in the critical field of coding all the more troubling. As Women in Tech advocate Helena Gagern noted recently in an article in Better Programming, the absence of women programmers not only represents a serious blow to gender equality but also a substantial missed economic opportunity for the tech industry.
With Facebook registering more than 1.7 billion users (slightly less than half of them women, according to Statista) and Google reporting upwards of 3.8 million searches per minute, the fact is women make up a large share of technology users today. In the U.S. 93% of women use the internet, yet little attention is paid to how they view tech differently from men and how designing services to suit women’s preferences would enhance the profitability of tech giants and non-giants alike. (Read also: How to Support Women in Your Tech Company.)
With this in mind, the numbers are not good. Only about 26 percent of the entire technology workforce is female and in the software field in particular, the portion of women engineers has only risen 2 percent over the past 20 years. A recent study by Opinium for PwC showed another troubling trend: while 64 percent of pre-university female students take STEM courses, that number drops to only 30 percent at the university level and only 3 percent go on to pursue a career in technology.
Clearly, changes must be made in the educational system to produce greater enthusiasm for the sciences, particularly in the later stages of instruction. Roxanne Hughes, a researcher at Florida State University, says one of the key problems is that teachers, both men and women, tend to ignore the signs that girls may be good at jobs like coding and often discourage confidence, assertiveness and other qualities necessary to pursue that dream while at the same time encouraging them in their male students.
Mentors for Women in Tech
Hughes says her research into computing camps shows that girls aged 10 to 12 can learn to see themselves as coders in as little as a week provided they are exposed to the many diverse roles within the field of coding and are encouraged and supported by those they view as experts. To really make this stick, however, educators at all levels must overcome their own biases about women and technology to instill enthusiasm and a sense of belonging throughout girls’ educational experience and into the workforce.
Although progress has been slow, the benefits of increasing female participation in technology disciplines like coding has not been lost on the tech industry. Logitech, for example, recently teamed up with advocacy group Girls Who Code to support a broad array of educational programs for girls, including a fully immersive learning program, internships and virtual events. At the same time, the company will donate a portion of its sales of Master Series products to Girls Who Code. As the company’s Delphine Donne-Crock explained, the idea is not only to increase diversity in tech-related fields but to build a community of female creators as they navigate through increasingly challenging career paths.
But is it enough to simply turn young women into coders? While there is certainly nothing wrong with coding as a profession, the fact is that tech will likely remain a male-dominated industry until women start to make headway into the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy. Working up through the ranks is one way to do it, but another is to launch the companies that will come to dominate the world economy in the future. (Read also: 7 Women Leaders in AI, Machine Learning and Robotics.)
Capital Concern: Raising Money for Start-Ups
Unfortunately, starting a tech business takes money, and as Allie Burns, CEO of Village Capital showed recently, support for female-led start-ups is woefully lacking. According to a recent analysis by Pitchfork, the third quarter of 2020 saw venture funding for organizations with female founders at its lowest level in three years and was far worse than the drop-off for male-led organizations due to the COVID-19 crisis. In 2019, only 11 percent of seed capital in emerging markets went to companies that included a woman on the founding team.
Supposedly, this discrepancy was to have been addressed with the establishment of start-up accelerators, organizations designed to match entrepreneurs with seed money. In reality, however, their impact has been distinctly negative. Acceleration programs have funneled equity into male-led organizations at 2.6 times the level of female-led ones while at the same time they have raised debt for female-led organizations at 2.5 times the rate for male-led outfits. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but Burns suggests it might be related to bias on the part of program managers that men are more trustworthy to warrant actual investment while women pose a greater risk that must be secured by a loan.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Burns’ research, which was carried out in conjunction with the International Finance Corporation, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Finance Initiative and the World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab, is that these biases continued even after more women managers were added to the acceleration programs. This suggests that the road to true parity between men and women in the tech field depends on both sexes learning to overcome their biases about women and technology. (Read also: Minding the Gender Gap: 10 Facts About Women in Tech.)
In this light, it may be that programs like Girls Who Code and Hughes’ research at the University of Florida are on the right track. Like a weed, the best way to stamp out gender bias may be to prevent it from germinating in the first place.