Despite strong gains in recent years, women are still underpaid, undervalued and under-represented in all of the leading technology industries.
But while education efforts have gained steam in recent years, many observers are noting that coding is not high on the list of priorities for many female STEM candidates.
While at first blush this may not seem all that consequential, it may in fact prove highly detrimental as women rise in the tech workforce. (Also read: We Asked Why There Aren't More Women In Tech.)
Virtually every technology-related job (and quite a few non-tech jobs as well) is expected to require some level of coding knowledge in the coming years, even if it is something simple like spreadsheet macros or database commands.
According to statistics compiled by CIO’s Sarah K. White, women make up nearly half of the overall workforce but only a quarter of computing jobs. And while women’s share of STEM degrees is on the rise, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees in computer science has dropped from 27% in 1997 to 19% in 2016.
This situation gets even worse as women head into the workforce; only 38% of women who majored in computer science ended up working in the field, compared to 53% of men. (Also read: The Future of Women in Tech.)
In part, this may be due to the persistent wage gap that women experience in the computing industry. Overall, women earn 87% of what men earn, while black women earn only 87% of what white women earn and only on 62% of what men earn.
Men tended to gravitate toward the hardware side of the data environment, while the dull drudgery of loading data and working with “software” (a relatively new term that was probably off-putting to men in a Freudian sense) was seen is little better than clerical work.
This all changed in the 1980s when parents began buying computers for their sons, not so much their daughters, which meant that by the time most girls began college they were way behind the boys in programming and other skills.
Only lately has this begun to turn around, with universities like Carnegie Mellon and Harvey Mudd tailoring computing classes around existing skillsets rather than by age, which keeps the novices from being overwhelmed by the programming geeks.
And this may already be having an effect in the workplace, as more women coders enter companies like Google to confront what many describe as a notoriously sexist culture.
It would seem, then, that restoring women’s interest in coding would do a lot to boost their ability to engage and succeed in the many diverse fields that make up the tech-driven workplace.
It is telling, after all, as tech executive Anneke Jong pointed out recently, that while nearly all male leaders in the tech industry have software backgrounds, only about a third of women do. Certainly, there is a role for non-technical leaders, but one of the fundamental aspects of computing is code.
For women not to have fair representation in this critical area puts them at a severe disadvantage — kind of like celebrating the rise of women in the medical field despite only a few becoming actual doctors.
So while it is important to honor women leaders like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and HP’s Meg Whitman, it wouldn’t hurt to highlight coders like Google’s Marisa Mayer to inspire more women to get into coding and devise unique solutions to problems that may benefit from a non-male perspective.
But are there any practical ways to make that happen?
A seemingly intractable problem is the impression that coding is a boy’s club, and a not all-that-interesting one at that. Fortunately, a number of organizations have cropped up in recent years aiming to correct this misperception through educational programs, development of new funding sources for computer training, community development initiatives and other activities — all aimed at introducing women to the joys of coding.
Women Who Code, for one, is dedicated to mentoring not just software engineers but executive leaders, venture capitalists, board members and others who can fuel demand for female coders. (Also read: Job Role: Software Engineer.)
Meanwhile, Girls Who Code is establishing branches at leading universities to get women into degree programs in the computer sciences, and to fundamentally alter the collective image of coding as the province of nerdy men.
Still, while the tech industry works to overcome the misperceptions about women who code, it might not hurt to undo some of the misperceptions about coding itself.
Far from being dull and difficult, coding is in fact one of the few ways computer jocks can be truly creative and it is fairly easy to learn.
At the same time, it lends itself well to both solitary effort and group coordination, and the end result is often highly impactful to individuals and organizations.
And as the rise of digital services and automated processes starts to remake the very world we live in, effective coding may become the primary avenue to true financial independence in the new century, for men and women.