Why a lack of women in tech hurts the industry, and what is already being done to help close the gender gap.
By Derek Khanna (Yale Law Visiting Fellow, Information Society Project).
Across the technology sector there is a major disparity between men and women.
While 57 percent of occupations in the workforce are held by women, in computing occupations that figure is only 25 percent. Of chief information officer jobs (CIOs) at Fortune 250 companies, 20 percent were held by a woman in 2012.
Unfortunately, this is not merely a temporary blip, as this disparity is present at the college level. In 2010, although 57 percent of undergraduate degree recipients were female, but only 14 percent of the computer science degrees at major research universities. Incredibly, this number has actually fallen in recent years: In 1985, 37 percent of undergraduates degree recipients in computer science were women. By 2010, that fell to 18 percent, and at major research universities, the number was 14 percent.
Incredibly, just 0.4 percent of female college freshmen say they intend to major in computer science—an astoundingly low number.
Looking to the data from high schoolers, the disparity is still extreme. While 56 percent of Advanced Placement test-takers were female, only 19 percent of test-takers on the AP Computer Science test were. At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), one of the world’s largest pre-college sciences competitions with more than $4,000,000 in awards, only 17 percent of 2011 finalists in computer science were young women.
This is Bad for Tech
This disparity hurts the technology companies themselves.
First, if half of the users of technology products and websites are women, then one would think that having women not just on staff, but in positions of leadership to define future directions for the company, is in their direct pecuniary interest. According to a recent study by Delloite:
Research shows that [women’s] choices impact up to 85 percent of purchasing decisions. By some analyses, they account for $4.3 trillion of total U.S. consumer spending of $5.9 trillion, making women the largest single economic force not just in the United States, but in the world.
According to a report by Parks Associates, more women than men are downloading movies and music; women do the majority of game-playing across some platforms; and women have higher “purchase intentions” than men do when it comes to some electronics.
To be clear, this is not to say that every woman in a technology company is an expert in how to create products for women—that is absurd—but certainly technology companies could benefit from an understanding of the perspectives and needs of the “largest single economic force” in the world.
Further, there have been several empirical studies finding that “people with more diverse sources of information generated consistently better ideas.” Walmart, not a technology company, has explained, “Diverse teams often outperform teams composed of the very best individuals, because this diversity of perspective and problem-solving approach trumps individual ability.”
Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, have demonstrated that women can be a driving force for innovation and ideas in technology.
This Is Bad for Women
According to an Engine Advocacy study published by the Kauffman Foundation, increasing numbers of jobs are coming from the high-tech sector.
The Kauffman report found that during the past three decades, the high-tech sector was 23 percent more likely than the economy as a whole to witness a new business formation. And the information and communications technology (ICT) sector was 48 percent more likely. High-tech firm births were 69 percent higher, and for ICT 210 percent higher, in 2011 as compared with 1980.
While older and larger firms are a major source of employment, the report found that it is “new and young businesses that are the primary sources of net new jobs.” In fact, outside of new businesses, job creation in the United States has been negative over the past three decades. As of 2012, U.S. tech employment totals 5.95 million.
And these are good, high-paying jobs. The tech industry pays an annual wage of $93,800 (as of 2012), which is 98 percent more than the average private sector wage. In some states like California and Massachusetts, it’s significantly higher, with $123,900 and $116,000, respectively. There are expected to be 1.4 million job openings for computer specialists by 2020. One would hope that women would be eligible for more than 25 percent of these future high-paying job openings.
The computing industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., and in the past year there was a 3.5 percent increase in software services jobs, vastly outpacing population growth of 0.9 percent. There are so many open jobs in the technology sector that many technology companies are unable to fill current openings. They worry about expanding in the future and being able to fill future needs. At current graduation rates, only 30 percent of the jobs created by 2020 can be filled with U.S. computing graduates.
How Do We Fix It?
There are many theories on why there are not more women in the technology sector. It is likely that many women haven’t considered a career in technology to begin with. In one study, a market research firm asked teenagers whether they’d consider a career in technology—and 63 percent said they hadn’t even considered it. This data point on teenagers overall is likely particularly on-point for women. One of Microsoft’s vice presidents, Cindy Bates, explains that “we need to do a better job of exposing women to technology-related jobs.”
Harvey Mudd’s president, Maria Klawe, compiled her own research and concluded:
We’ve done lots of research on why young women don’t choose tech careers and number one is they think it’s not interesting. Number two, they think they wouldn’t be good at it. Number three, they think they will be working with a number of people that they just wouldn’t feel comfortable or happy working alongside.
Each of these issues can be addressed.
- Technology is interesting. As Will.I.Am says, “Great coders are today’s rock stars.”
- There are many examples of women being effective technology leaders. The NCWIT Heroes podcast series features nearly 80 female tech founders and innovators like Hilary Mason, chief scientist at Bit.ly, and Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot.
- After watching The Internship, who wouldn’t be excited and happy with the prospect of working at a major technology company with smart, sometimes quirky, and innovative people? However, there is a perception by some that technology companies are male-centric environments. When this perception is validated—when there is a "brogrammer" culture that plays a role in deterring women—then technology companies can do a better job of creating an open environment. And where it is not validated, that perception will need to be addressed.
The second issue is worthy of further reflection because the data are overwhelming. Women are leading adopters in:
- Internet usage
- Mobile phone voice usage
- Mobile phone location services
- Text messaging
- Every social network but LinkedIn
- All Internet-enabled devices
- Health-care devices
The perception of high school girls that they are simply not good at technology is simply incorrect—they are first adopters. And other data bolster this argument, as it turns out that women may be better than men when it comes to leading a technology start-up,
"[W]omen-operated, venture-backed high tech companies average 12 percent higher annual revenues. They also use on average one-third less capital than male counterparts' startups."
Intel researcher Genevieve Bell assembled a large amount of evidence on these issues and concluded, “[I]t turns out if you want to find out what the future looks like, you should be asking women.”
What is Already Being Done
In 2007, the National Center for Women & Information Technology created a program called “Aspirations in Computing.” It is a recognition and talent-development program for high school girls who demonstrate interest and aspirations in technology. They are accepting applications right now from ninth-to-twelfth-grade girls nationwide. The program is not just looking for girls who do robotics and code today; it’s for all girls who envision technology in their futures.
Award recipients join an exclusive online network that provides long-term mentoring, encouragement, and connections—as well as opportunities, internships, and jobs. Participants connect year-round, both virtually and in-person at their colleges and internships, conferences, and tech events. “These Aspirations alumni are building a powerful network of peers,” said Ruthe Farmer, Director of Strategic Initiatives at NCWIT. “Instead of knowing just a few other women in tech, these girls are connected to thousands. This connectedness not only helps them persist in the field, it makes them a great asset for employers. If you want to hire more technical women, hire one of these girls.”
Last year, over 1,000 young women were inducted into the program at 54 award events nationwide, garnering cash, gadgets, and introductions to top tech leaders like Facebook director of engineering Jocelyn Goldfein. Twelve Aspirations in Computing winners were invited to the White House in 2013, including two presenters at the White House Science Fair.
This year NCWIT plans to recognize as many as 1,200 high school award recipients. Thirty-five girls will be selected as National winners, taking home $500 cash, a laptop, a $1,000 scholarship from VC and NCWIT chair Brad Feld, and a trip to the award ceremony at Bank of America's headquarters in Charlotte, NC. The deadline is October 31, 2013, so if you know a high school girl, ask her, “Have you considered a career in technology—why don’t you check this out?”
Where This Leaves Us
Programs like these will do more than just help the 1,200 women awarded every year; it will also be part of a social and cultural shift in society. There are a number of role models for women in the technology sector, and there are more every year.
Over time, and with investments in programs like this one, role models like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer—along with all the data showing the tangible benefit of having more women work for technology companies overall—will inevitably lead to a tipping point. Average girls in high school will seriously consider a career in technology because it’s exciting, lucrative, and intellectually stimulating. Half of our society cannot be held back from this inevitable progression. The status quo is simply unsustainable.
This post was originally appeared on The Atlantic.
About the blogger: Derek Khanna is a Yale Law Visiting Fellow at the Information Society Project. He was previously a congressional staffer for the House Republican Study Committee and Senator Scott Brown (R-MA). He writes about issues at the intersection of government and technology.