Overcoming Stereotypes in Tech

By Richa Khandelwal

In school, I was lucky to have access to computer classes, and I really enjoyed programming. So when the time came for me to think about my career path, it was clear to me that I wanted to be a computer scientist. It wasn’t until I arrived at an undergraduate engineering college as a freshman that I realized how few women choose a similar path. There were only three other female computer science students in my class of 40. The gender ratio was similar at later institutions that I attended for education and work.

My experience is not unique. My early education and professional experience was in India, but even in the US, there is a smaller percentage of women in computing professions compared to men — only 25% in 2015, according to National Center for Women and Information Technology’s most recent statistics. What’s disappointing is that this number was 26% in 2013 and hasn’t seen a positive trend at all in the last two years.

The trend quoted above is disappointing but not surprising. Last year, there was an instance of stereotyping women in engineering that hit home for me in particular. Isis Anchalee, a female engineer at OneLogin, a cloud based security company, was featured in a recruitment banner ad for her company. The ad sparked a lot of posts and messages in social media around her looks and how “she was way too hot to be an engineer.” In response, Anchalee created a Twitter campaign called #ILookLikeAnEngineer, to protest against gender-based stereotypes in the software industry. The comments about Anchalee’s ad personally offended me, and I participated in her campaign to show my support.

Incidents like this won’t go away soon. The key is to challenge these stereotypes and move past them.

In the past year, there have been numerous efforts by companies and the government to boost the number of women in computing. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced the Computer Science For All Initiative, a $4 billion plan aimed at making sure girls and minorities get a chance to learn computer science. CEOs and executives in companies like Facebook, Youtube and Salesforce and are teaming up to support global initiatives against sexism. Companies like Intel also offer sponsorships to women to attend and speak at conferences.

Subsequent years will hopefully yield positive trends as a result of all of these efforts. Based on NCWIT’s report, there will be 1.1 million computing related job openings in 2024, and it is projected that only 41% of those can be filled. This huge gap in the needs of the workforce should be a strong motivation to ensure that women participate as much as men in advancing the computing industry.

Overall, my reflections on the past year make me feel hopeful. All the efforts in companies and universities worldwide towards increasing women’s participation in STEM and the efforts made by women themselves to challenge detractors to these changes embolden me to expect a positive changes in diversity in tech.

There are many reasons for why fewer women opt for a career in computing. Some of them are societal norms, financial restrictions, economic instability and many more. The reason why I chose to work at Coursera is because I believe education is the most effective solution. Over the last year that I have worked at Coursera, I have witnessed women transform their lives by taking online courses from the world’s top universities. Some got jobs, some gained self confidence and some simply found hope. It’s been amazing to watch and hear about these transformations, and even more profound to be a part of it.

Online education has an important role to play in the spectrum of efforts initiated by companies and governments to bring more women into computing. At Coursera we, strive to be part of the change as we pursue our mission of giving anyone, anywhere access to the world’s highest quality education.

Originally published at building.coursera.org on March 11, 2016.