Debugging The Problem Of Women In Tech

5725429101_aef8b17d04_z

The fact that computer science is ill-suited in preparing new engineers to enter the workforce opened the door for so-called ‘hacker academies’ to pick up the slack.

By Christian Fernandez (Co-Organizer, Hackbright Academy)

As I had grown into the role of technical lead in an engineering organization, I found that I spent significantly less time programming, and more time debugging other people’s problems. Oddly enough, this doesn’t involve protracted hours poring over code; most of the time problems can be solved by having someone ask the obvious questions. Here’s an example.

Engineeer: We have a problem! The server won’t talk to the database! I tried rolling back to an older API and everything!
Me: Is the database machine up?
Engineer: Yes.
Me: Is the database service running?
Engineer: Yes.
Me: Are the servers visible to each other on the network?
Engineer: No.
Me: Is the database visible to any other machine on the network?
Engineer: No.
Me: Is… the network cable plugged in?
Engineer: Uhh…

And so it goes.

Now I’m an educator, specifically trying to solve the problem of the lack of women in tech. Even though the nature of the problem is about as different as it gets, I resorted to my standard bag of tricks and started with the obvious questions.

Just how many women are there in tech?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of developers are women. This number seems to be lower in the Silicon Valley, observationally, it seems closer to one in ten.

At the college level, some universities have instituted a policy of having a 50% ratio of women to men entering computer science, but high attrition brings the number down between 10 and 20% for graduates. Interestingly, this is particular to US universities. The University of Malaysia, for example, manages to maintain parity from acceptance to graduation.

Why are the attrition rates so high?

Ultimately, it’s a social problem. A study at UPenn found that women were entering the CS major with an inadequate background. This is a natural side-effect of relaxing admission requirements to increase the ratio, and resulted in students struggling to perform as well as their peers. Compounded with a general perception that men knew more about the subject, women lost confidence, and subsequently, interest in pursuing a computer science degree.

Anecdotes collected from women I worked and went to school with affirm the study, but in a less clinical tone. The common theme in these stories was that they were intimidated by entering a male-dominated field where the prevailing attitude asserts that women are somehow innately less skilled than men. Some women went as far as saying that the environment was hostile. Men were openly competitive about their knowledge mastery, and more than one woman told me they felt they were being judged as being representative of all women.

It’s no wonder there are so few women in tech.

Can anything be done?

On the face of it, it seems high school educators could do more to ensure that women are well-prepared to enter computer science programs when they reach college. Naturally, the next obvious question is, why aren’t they already when so many men are? To be perfectly honest, I have no insight into the problem at that level. Furthermore, high school curriculums are so wildly divergent I doubt that a systematic, global solution can be found.

The anecdotes I collected suggest that a college equivalent of HR harassment training could do much to reduce the attrition rate. That seems even less likely to become reality than high school standardization.

Without a massive social shift (which I believe will occur naturally, gradually), I don’t think anything can be done to improve the numbers of university-level computer science programs.

Wait… is university-level CS required to enter the tech industry?

Ten years ago, I would have said yes, with a few notable exceptions. Now, the answer is a firm no. Tech has rapidly evolved since the first Internet bubble. Gone are the days of attempting to eke out every last drop of performance from a user’s computer, which required an almost-obsessive attention to details and an encyclopedic knowledge of algorithms, things which fall squarely in the province of computer science.

With the rise of web 2.0 and social networking, most problems in tech involve moving huge swaths of data over vast networks, orchestrating and integrating countless components to enable this data manipulation. Universities are only just realizing this, and few if any have updated their curriculums accordingly.

So what does this all mean for women in tech?

The fact that computer science is ill-suited in preparing new engineers to enter the workforce opened the door for so-called ‘hacker academies’ to pick up the slack. Hacker School in New York, Code Academy in Chicago, and now Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco have all seen promising early success in teaching the skills necessary for modern software engineering in a
short time frame.

From there, it was a short hop to start a course that builds on those successes while simultaneously aiming to eliminate the social problems that drive women out of traditional computer science programs in the first place. Thus was born Hackbright Academy, an accelerated engineering training program exclusively for women. In a very real sense, we’re brute-forcing the problem: we’re increasing the number of women in tech by training and placing women in entry-level tech positions.

I believe that we’ll eventually make the social changes necessary to make our program obsolete. I look forward to the day that women no longer feel intimidated pursuing technical degrees. It seems inevitable, and until then, we’ll keep doing our part to urge these changes along.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

Photo credit: Angie Chang / PyLadies Intro to Web Programming Workshop.

About the guest blogger: Christian Fernandez is a Co-Organizer of Hackbright Academy. He builds network applications and teaches programming. He’s been a senior software developer at Kivera (acquired by TCS), Ask, and Fuzebox. He’s also a founding member and resident python instructor at Ace Monster Toys, an educational hackerspace in Oakland, and was an instructor for the inaugural class of DevBootcamp. Christian holds a BS in EECS from UC Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter at @hackbright.