Doing it for the Girls.
It’s clear we’re in the midst of a period of evolution when it comes to women & minorities involvement in the tech industry. The first step for any shift of this magnitude is awareness, and it’s apparent that the issue is receiving the attention it deserves.
I feel it’s a great time to be immersed in, entering, or gaining an interest in technology, despite the currently unattractive gender & diversity ratios. Yes, there’s safety in numbers, but there’s comfort in community.
And that’s what so many of the groups and organisations championing diversity in tech have become. They’re advancing the issue beyond discussion, and are taking the invaluable next steps, which require action.
Here are just a few examples of people & projects that have gotten me excited:
She’s been one-half of the world’s largest private philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for the past 16 years — which we’ve historically associated with initiatives tackling health, poverty, and access to education. Yet, Melinda has just announced that she’s set her sights on an issue close to her heart — getting more women & minorities into tech. It’s ‘close to heart’ as Gates herself graduated with a Computer Science degree from Duke university in 1987, and then spent the next 10 years at Microsoft. She expressed her dismay (in her interview with Backchannel in September) at the decrease in CS degrees earned by women in the three decades since her graduation. “I care about computer science. When I was in school in the 1980s, women got about 37 percent of computer science degrees.” Now? The proportion of female CS grads has dropped to 18%. Gates knows “this has got to change”.
Having established a new office as the base camp for this project (separate to the Gates Foundation), Melinda asserts that they’re currently in “learning mode”. Following this period of “learning, collecting information, talking to lots of experts, and looking at what research is out there”, she’ll decide where investments should go. She’s looking for input, and keen to learn and understand where her attention will be best placed. In a follow-up Backchannel piece, collating the ideas & opinions of readers, a particular comment gets a resounding ‘yes’ from me — Freada Kapor Klein advised “Please keep in mind the interconnections between race, class, and gender. We can’t just focus on women without specific interventions for women of colour — otherwise you’ll find that you’re only benefiting privileged white women, which is not the diversity that we’re looking for in tech”.
Areas of interest Gates has already identified include having role models (of all phenotypes), the ‘leaky pipeline’ in education when it comes to girls pursuing STEM subjects, and the perception of male-dominated fields (such as the gaming industry). She’s fixated on ‘Data, Data, Data”, and stresses that “anywhere you don’t have data, you need to have it. Data in this area will make it transparent”. And this is where the next woman comes in…
Tracy interned at Google and Facebook, before working as a full-time Software Engineer at Pinterest & Quora. I first heard her name when I stumbled upon a GitHub repo which she’d initiated to crowd-source stats on Women in Engineering. It’s a simple spreadsheet inviting companies to enter (thus, making public) the number of female engineers they’re employing. It was Chou who’d asked the question — “In raw numbers, are there actually more technical women in industry now than before? Is the percentage of women in engineering going up? What’s working? Is anything? Does anybody know?”
In 2013, she attended the infamous ‘Grace Hopper Celebration’, and following conversation around the lack of Women in Tech, she decided to look at the data, to understand the true extent of the problem. Yet despite the ‘data-driven’ approach to technology & start-ups which is preached non-stop, she was left bewildered as to why ‘data’ wasn’t driving this problem, and guiding a solution. So she penned a blog post on Medium, writing “I can’t imagine trying to solve a problem where the real metrics, the ones we’re setting our goals against, are obfuscated.” It’s here that she welcomed tech companies to contribute their numbers to her public GitHub spreadsheet. With Pinterest’s blessing, she shared their ‘number’ — 11 female engineers vs. 78 men. Shortly after, hundreds more flooded in. Armed with hard figures, which can be viewed in their current state here, it’s confirmation that the technical arena is as white and male as everyone suspected.
Public diversity reports have become commonplace as result, but the numbers are slow to change. Chou left Pinterest this summer, and helped launch ‘Project Include’ who’s mission is to provide ‘meaningful diversity and inclusion solutions for tech companies.’ They’ve curated a set of recommendations to accelerate diversification, hoping that the tech world will take note.
This non-profit was launched by Stanford students in 2012, hoping to ‘dispel the misconception that computer science is not a career for women and minorities’ by rebranding what it means to be in the technology industry. Through a number of truly engaging programs, She++ is enlisting high-school & college students to become diversity champions by organising events, mentoring others, and seeding discussion. These programs include the ‘She++ Ambassador Program’ and the ‘#include Fellowship Program’, all aiming to build a new generation of technologists who advocate inclusivity. The first She++ chapter outside of Stanford has just launched in London, based out of UCL (and I’m psyched to be the Community-Lead this year, alongside some amazing women).
She++ is student-led, and there’s a clear understanding that by demonstrating computer science’s capacity for social impact and problem-solving, there’s potential to inspire and break down barriers. Thus, there’s an emphasis on hosting events that exhibit this. The upcoming London event — She++ Codes London — exemplifies this. It’s a hack-day for students from underrepresented groups to get together with mentors from industry, and learn as much as possible through a workshop series (for beginners) or a mentored code project (for those more experienced).
With sponsors such as Google, Palantir, and Sequoia Capital, there’s an endless runway for She++ to create an engaged community. The She++ documentary is probably the best I’ve seen on the subject of Women in Tech, and a must-watch if you haven’t seen it. Join our London Slack channel if you’d like to hear more.
Originally published at cognitive-unbias.com on November 19, 2016.