Gender Diversity in IT: The problem we can’t stop talking about
I currently spend my days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Information Science and Technology, running a small marketing and communications department. An ever-growing part of my position is running our middle and high school outreach programs, as well as playing a significant role on our Women in IT Initiative. I recently gave a talk about one initiative we launched last winter, CodeCrush, and saw a significant misunderstanding of why programs like CodeCrush are needed. Below is a summary of my talk, and why we all need to care.
Let’s get everyone on the same page. To call the gender diversity gap in IT a “gap” is an understatement: while women make up over half of the current workforce, they comprise of just a quarter of the tech industry.
A similar situation is happening with higher education degrees in computing: while over half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. were earned by women, less than 20 percent of computing degrees were.
And the future is looking pretty bleak: only nine percent of girls say that computing would be a “very good” career choice for them, and less than one percent of female college freshman say they intend to major in computer science. (I grabbed these stats from Ann Friedman’s previous Medium post which is definitely worth a read.)
But why should we care?
Those sound like impressive, sad statistics…but why do we need to care?
Women are missing out on a huge opportunity to get jobs and make (a lot of) money. As of 2012, U.S. tech employment totals 5.95 million. And pay is nothing to sneeze at either, with the national average hovering over $93,000.
What’s more, we already don’t have enough skilled IT professionals. Computing jobs are one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., at a reported rate of two times the national average. And it’s just going to keep growing. Publications and organizations such as Code.org report between having a workforce deficit of one million workers by 2020, and only being able to fill 30 percent of open positions by 2020.
Most importantly, we need all voices at the table to help solve complex problems. It’s been proven time and time again that teams with high diversity produce better solutions and ideas. When everyone at the table looks, thinks, and talks the same — you’re not going to answer all the questions or ask all the questions that still need to be asked. Different backgrounds, different questions, different solutions are necessary to really solve problems.
“Cool. Got it,” you may say. “The need is there. But what if it’s just a difference of how men and women think? Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Where were you during the 90's? We just think differently.”
That’d be super awesome if that were actually true and not just sexist. Because girls do computers, math and science, they just don’t do computer science.
Nearly half of AP Calculus test-takers are girls. Girls are early adaptors of technology, and use computers just as much as boys. And at my college, when women do enroll in our programs, they stay. We hold an over 90 percent retention rate for female students.
The fact is: Girls don’t code, because girls don’t code.
Women have been written out of the history of computer programming, creating a long history of a lack of role models and adding to the misconceptions that women don’t have what it takes to do IT. When you’re the only person that looks like you in a room, the world can be a pretty lonely place. You’re less likely to ask questions, and a strong inferiority complex settles in.
And, we are still in an uphill battle where gender stereotypes are still in play with peers, parents, teachers, guidance counselors. Knowingly or not, girls are often discouraged from entering STEM fields like IT because it’s not “girly,” it’s a “boy’s hobby.” Imagine your whole life being told you’re just good at a subject just based on your gender. It’s hard to not believe them at some point.
*Recommended reading: Want to understand more about how our stereotypes keep women from entering certain fields, and it’s not biological wiring? Check out this in-depth article from last October about the lack of women earning their Ph.D.’s in STEM.
So we’re working on a solution that is inclusive, not exclusive.
CodeCrush is an iSTEM immersion experience for eighth and ninth grade girls. For four days and three nights, 30 girls and their teachers stay on campus and get a first-hand look at what IT really is. A part of the IS&T Women in IT Initiative, a community-led task force helping boost the awareness of the need for more women in the IT workforce, we identified that many misconceptions and stereotypes happen when students are young. We wanted design a program to keep that from happening.
A overwhelming problem in the IT field is young students do not have female role models. No one to look up to and say “hey, I want to be them when I grow up.” So we formed panels, recruited volunteers, and introduced these girls to inspiring women who work in IT.
Some IT is sitting at a desk crushing Mountain Dew while you code for hours. But that’s just part of it. IT is also bioinformatics, which is using data-driven solutions to help doctors make better decisions. It’s also cybersecurity, which helps stop hackers from stealing information from people like you and me. It’s also IT Innovation, music technology, video game design, app development, 3-D printing, and almost everything else you can think of.
A huge part of CodeCrush is also participations from educators. Teachers are required to attend the experience with their students, and we held informal town hall forums for them to talk about what computer science education looks like in their districts. We gave them toolkits and trained them on how to incorporate current IT lessons into their curriculums right now. Because in many places, computer science often means keyboarding skills. We wanted teachers to walk away with the ability to become computer science champions in their own hallways.
And, most importantly, we created a community where they felt like they belonged. Every single one of these girls were different, but they all had the same thing in common: they had an interest in technology. Something, some of them, thought they were alone in.
We had girls like this one. Who cried when her mom dropped her off, and was so nervous she requested a tour of our college before she came. At the end of the experience, she hugged me and told me she never felt so welcomed.
We busted down stereotypes and misconceptions. We helped them see their futures could be in technology.
We showed them that girls do code. And do everything else, too.
We’re accepting applications for the 2015 CodeCrush class right now! If you know a motivated student, send her our way.
Additionally, I am growing more and more aware that these conversations are excluding entire communities of other genders past male and female. I apologize to those communities that this post does that as well, and am working on solutions to become more inclusive of all. We are all human beings, and should be treated as such.