Kristi Riordan, COO of the Flatiron School, discusses some of the intrinsic motivators that continue to give women pause before making the decision to launch a career in tech.
It’s no secret that the tech industry is disproportionately male. In 2014, just 18% of Bachelor degrees in Computer Science were given to women, down from a high of 37% in 1984. As COO of Flatiron School, I’ve witnessed firsthand how challenging it can be to achieve gender parity in our coding education programs. The stereotypical tech culture -- bro environments, coding in isolation and development of apps like Titstare -- has been unfriendly, even outright hostile, to women.
Fortunately, this version of the tech industry has been largely deemed no longer acceptable. Although tech companies have slowly started creating more welcoming environments, there are other intrinsic motivators that continue to give women pause before making the decision to launch a career in tech – their career perception, fear of failure, and tolerance for risk.
1. Women don’t see the purpose-filled career they can have in programming
A study conducted by Google in 2014 found that women are drawn to technical careers based on their “familiarity with, and perception of, Computer Science as a career with diverse applications and a broad potential for positive societal impact.”
Indeed, many of the female programmers I know made the connection that technical skills will empower them to achieve their goals or enable them to effect change. This connection usually happens through exposure to someone in the industry – or opportunities to see professionals who have used their technical skills in a broad base of applications.
Take Ashley Blewer, who became interested in technology at the age of 8 but dropped out of Computer Science her Freshman year of college because the “sea of white male faces reinforced the idea that this was not a space for [her].” Instead, Ashley pursued a career as an archivist in a university library, which involved many rote activities in cataloguing metadata. “I knew I could add more value to the library if I could do this algorithmically rather than do it by hand, one by one,” she said. Following through on that instinct, she learned to code and is now equipped to make a much bigger impact as an Applications Developer at the New York Public Library.
Victoria Friedman studied English as an undergrad and spent her first two years in the publishing industry -- an environment she found to be far less collaborative than she had envisioned. Her brother, a software engineer, suggested she learn web design to advance at publishing companies. “I thought I would hate coding,” she said. “I didn’t fit the stereotype of an anti-social programmer. I didn’t do well in math and science. But I realized coding was the creative outlet I was craving professionally.” Since launching her new career, Victoria has contributed as a software engineer at Time and today works for New York Magazine.
Coding can be deployed to solve problems in virtually any field or company, but technical careers never get off the ground for women who can’t picture themselves using those skills.
Companies, universities and educational programs like coding bootcamps need to work together to shed light on the varied careers that use coding to create social impact. When women realize that learning to code can open doors for them to virtually any field, they are far more likely to consider it as a potential career path filled with as much purpose as future promise.
2. Women retreat due to a fear of failure
Confidence is critical to thriving in education and at work – perhaps even more than competence. And yet, there is evidence to show that women doubt themselves and lose their confidence more often than men. Some even refer to it as the confidence gap.
I recently spoke with a Professor in Mechanical Engineering who wants to learn to code so she can develop more integrated, technical curriculum into her coursework. What was stopping her? She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to keep up in a field where she had no past experience.
I was surprised to hear this from someone who is so clearly accomplished in her academic and professional pursuits. However, self-doubt in the face of contrary evidence is so common for women that there’s even a name for it: Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that you clearly don’t belong when presented with a new and difficult challenge.
Brianne King studied Industrial Engineering at Cornell and worked as a pharmaceutical supply chain analyst, but she had been “miserable for two and a half years” before deciding to learn to code and pursue a developer job. Reflecting on her decision at a recent Women in Tech panel on the Flatiron School campus, Brianne said, “I was just afraid: what if I can’t do this?”
Within software engineering, this confidence gap is also fueled by the fact that women, on average, tend to enter education programs with less technical experience than men have. Men are more likely to be self-taught coders, take free online courses, study Computer Science in college or work in IT, which can create a perceived disparity in aptitude for women who want to pursue a career in tech.
But one way both traditional and alternative education programs can help tip the scales is to admit students based on their future potential rather than their current knowledge. Admissions processes need to provide an opportunity for students with very little prior experience to demonstrate their aptitude and potential.
3. Women fail to start due to their risk tolerance
Deciding to pursue a significant career change requires a certain personal risk tolerance. Education is one of the biggest investments we make in our personal future, yet there are many decision points that may give women pause before taking a risk on themselves and their future success -- namely, tuition and time.
If women are able to perceive a career for themselves in tech and sufficiently overcome any confidence gap they may have in their own abilities to become a software engineer, they are now faced with the next two hurdles in their risk assessment – paying for tuition and finding a program that provides enough flexibility for their lives.
Getting a master's degree typically costs between $30,000 and $120,000; the average tuition for a coding bootcamp is about $11,000. Going back to school is a significant expense for anyone, but consider that women have a 20% pay gap compared to men and “the median wealth for single women between the ages of 18 and 64 is only 49% of the median wealth of their single male counterparts.”
Time is as much of an investment as tuition. Most masters programs take between 1.5-2 years to complete. A typical coding bootcamp program only takes 12-16 weeks, but it requires an intense commitment of 60-70 hours per week. Both program structures exclude students who may have personal life commitments such as caregiving or the inability to uproot or commute into a major urban center -- students who overwhelmingly tend to be female.
Women still spend on average 2x the amount of time on caregiving activities than men do. Women are estimated to comprise 66% of elder caregivers. And in 2015, more than 80% of single parent families were headed by single mothers. These types of personal life commitments, which women have more often than men, make it challenging to go back to school to learn the skills necessary to make a career change.
In addition to expanding financial access, educational institutions must create programs that provide more flexibility to meet the needs of modern life, especially for women. We are starting to see more continued education programs that are self-paced and accessible online from anywhere in the world. These programs have the potential to draw more students who need to retain their job while studying, who have childcare responsibilities, or who cannot relocate.
To attract more women to software engineering, tech culture must continue to evolve into one that is more welcoming and inclusive. But we need to also consider intrinsic motivators. Technical education must be branded with a path to a purposeful career and financial stability. Women need to be supported and challenged in their confidence and programs must be designed with the modern student in mind. Institutions that deliver on these promises, will graduate students that more closely resemble the diversity of our society.
Kristi Riordan is Chief Operating Officer at Flatiron School, an outcomes-focused coding bootcamp offering the best in software engineering education in NYC and online. Prior to joining Flatiron School, she spent nine years at Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG), the world's largest network for professional learning. At GLG, she was a catalyst for new business growth efforts across their financial services and corporate markets. Before GLG, she managed a personal wealth team at Blackstone Private Equity, working with the founding partners. She has also held roles as a law clerk on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and an engagement manager at the public accounting firm KPMG. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.