Eighteen percent. That’s how many computer science degrees are earned by women. That’s abysmal. Especially when you consider that 57% of all degrees earned were earned by women. Why are we not doing a better job of attracting (and retaining) more undergraduate women into the field?
It hasn’t always been this bad. In fact, one could point out that at one time 100% of computer programmers were female. Even if that’s too much of a stretch, there’s no doubt that women were early pioneers in the field. When the first computer was developed at my alma mater, the team of six that programmed it were all women. (Yes I know there are other claims to being the first computer, but since my first email address ended in @eniac.seas.upenn.edu … I’m biased.) I heard all about Eckert and Mauchly, but not much was said about Betty Snyder, Jean Bartik and the other women who helped make it work. A few years after I graduated, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today it’s down to 24%. And this number is expected to shrink further.
We have work to do at all levels. We need to provide a more welcoming professional environment; we need to attract more students to computer science programs; we need to reduce the negative stigma associated with technology studies in middle and high schools; we need to continue to raise the profile of STEM courses in primary school. The Girls Who Code website mentions that, “while interest in computer science ebbs over time, the biggest drop off happens between the ages of 13-17”. Being the father of a 12 year old daughter, I can see this happening in real life, in real time.
I can’t solve all these problems on my own. Yet I know that doing something is better than doing nothing. That was part of the motivation for bringing Rails Girls to New England. This was a free workshop to provide software literacy training to women in the Portland area. The demand for this training came from as far away as Washington, DC and far outstripped our ability to supply it and we had to turn away applicants.
I’d like to continue to encourage women to participate actively in technology and its related fields. I don’t have the resources to fund scholarships or start new degree programs, but as co-founder of a tech company, I’m in a position to provide other opportunities. At last count, 4 out of every 10 people on our team was female, and women make up half of our senior management team. But our client base is far less diverse, being composed mostly of men. This is not surprising as only women create only 3% of tech startups, receive less than 10% of venture capital funding and are pitching to a network of venture capitalists that is 96% male.
I don’t always have the luxury of choosing clients based on gender alone, but if I pick clients based solely on who decides to call in or email I expect our client base will continue to reflect the state of the industry. If I make a conscious effort to reach out more to women than I usually do, then perhaps I can have an impact on these statistics – at least in our own slice of the industry.
There are 22 working days in March. One of these days is International Women’s Day. My challenge for our team here at FM is to seek out and take meetings with 22 women by the end of March. These should be women new to our world, not just meetings with existing colleagues. As with any established network composed mostly of men, we are in danger of fostering an “Old Boys Club” attitude. This is intolerable.
Our work is focused on providing business consulting, design and technology teams to startups to help develop successful digital products. If we intentionally skew our outreach, hopefully we can support more women-led startups to become successful.