Women In Tech: The Missing Force

a TEDx talk


On April 6, 2014, I spoke at TEDxCollegeOfWilliamAndMary. The theme of the event was “Forward,” to address the subtly powerful forces that are changing our daily lives and affecting our future through our communication, our careers, and our relationships. My topic? Women in the software industry, and how they are missing from the force shaping the future of technology.

You can also view the video on the TED YouTube channel and see my slides on SlideShare.


Women In Tech: The Missing Force
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1985. And 1985 was a significant year, not just for me, but for women studying computer science across the United States.

37% of the computer science degrees in the US that year were awarded to women. When I was in school, and early in my career, I had plenty of female peers. I felt like I belonged.

Yet, in 2011, that ratio had dropped by more than 50% to just 17%. In fact, it had been that low for at least the previous few years. And the overall number of women had dropped, from 14,431 in 1985 to just 7,594 in 2011. (Source, source, source, source)

Bar chart showing the CS degrees awarded in the US in 1985 and 2011, by gender.

We need women to be a force shaping the future of technology, and they’re simply not there.

The Need
The fact is that we need more trained computer scientists, of any gender, to meet the projected job needs of the future. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), by 2022 US companies report that they’ll need 1.2M more trained computer scientists. That number includes new and replacement jobs. Assuming today’s graduation rates stay the same, only 39% of these jobs will be filled by US-trained computer scientists. (Source)

And H1-B visas aren’t plentiful enough to address this gap with foreign-trained workers.

Why More Women?
I think we can all agree that diversity is a good thing. On our engineering teams, we want a balance of gender, age, ethnicity, and other qualities to make sure the teams are approaching problems holistically and creating solutions that are going to meet the needs of all kinds of people. In a study by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Union College, they found that women help make a group more effective at solving difficult problems. (Source) We need more women to be part of the force solving difficult problems.

By the way, this is true not just for tech, but for every other male-dominated field as well: politics and finance, to name just two.

Cautionary Tales
There are real-world cautionary tales of what happens when you don’t have gender diversity on your engineering teams. My friend Nora Denzel gave the keynote at the largest conference for women in tech—the Grace Hopper Celebration—in 2012, and she shared these three examples:

1. Early speech recognition machines were made by all-male teams, and they calibrated it for their voices. When they tried to sell to primarily female secretarial teams, the technology failed miserably.
2. The same thing happened with car air bags. The team developing the air-bag was all-male, and as they designed it, they used the height and weight chart for the standard man. The unintended and tragic consequence was that women and children were killed when those early airbags were deployed.
3. As you may know, over a billion people don’t have access to a reliable water source. Multi-disciplinary engineering teams went into 15 African countries, and later teams went in to study which teams were the most successful. When women were included on the engineering teams and in the customer research to identify the solution, the solution was more effective and lasted longer.

I don’t believe any of these men consciously built solutions only for other men, but you have to wonder what would’ve been different if women had been part of the force shaping the outcomes.

Impact on Patents
Yet, what I think is most important is the research that shows gender diversity fosters innovation. NCWIT published a study showing that teams comprised of men and women produced the most frequently cited software patents—with citation rates that were 26% higher than the norm for similar patents. What does this mean? Patents may cite other patents to reference prior art that they’ve built on or to differentiate themselves. A highly cited patent can mean that it is core to its field, that it represents significant innovation. So, you’re more likely to be in the dark center of a citation graph if you have gender diversity on your teams. And by the way, the study showed it was 42% higher for patents for computer peripherals. (Source)

Bottom Line
The bottom line is that you have a higher likelihood of your project or your company being successful if you have women on your teams to provide a more balanced approach, more inclusive design, and more innovation.

And speaking of the bottom line, the research group Catalyst found that companies with the highest representation of women in senior leadership had better financial performance than companies with the lowest representation of women. And that Fortune 500 companies with women CEOs outperformed the market. (Source)

Why The Decline?
Where are the women? What’s caused the decline? I have a theory: the personal computer. IBM launched the PC in 1981, Apple launched the Macintosh in 1984.

When I was in middle school and high school, there were no personal computers, no home computers, and hardly any computers in schools. Young women and young men were pretty much equivalent in their computer skills — few of us had any!

Since then, computing has become affordable and pervasive. And for whatever societal reason, boys are more inclined to spend time playing computer games, tinkering, going to tech camps to learn to code, and taking AP Computer Science. Did you know that only 18% of the AP CS exams are taken by females? It’s comparable to those dismal graduation ratios.

I heard Sheryl Sandberg speak about a year ago, and she shared an interesting story. In Silicon Valley, there is a summer day camp that teaches coding. She enrolled her 7-year old son and niece, and her niece was one of only five girls (out of about 50 kids) in that camp group. This is the age when parents make decisions for their kids about summer camp, not the other way around. So, in the heart of Silicon Valley, parents are choosing for the most part to send only their sons to the coding camp. It’s called unconscious bias, and unfortunately it’s everywhere.

This unconscious bias, that boys are going to like computers more than girls, leads to girls not spending as much time with computers and eventually not taking computer science classes in high school. When they get to college, they’re intimidated by the experience of their classmates, mostly young men, who have been hacking since they were in elementary school. Guess what? The women opt out.

Groups for Girls & Women in CS
It’s not all doom and gloom. There are many initiatives here in the US and around the world to educate, encourage and empower girls of all ages to learn to code, to study STEM, and pursue tech careers. Some are focused on young girls, others on professional women. There are programs for adults who didn’t study CS in college to learn programming skills and get jobs. All of these programs are meeting important needs, and we’re counting on them to get more women to join the force shaping technology.

Collection of logos of groups that support girls and women in tech

Creating a more inclusive environment
And there’s good news from universities. I’ll tell you about three:

Harvey Mudd is well known by the women in tech community for what they’ve done to change the ratio. This small engineering college in southern California has taken specific measures to increase the number of Computer Science degrees awarded to women, and they’ve changed their ratio of CS majors from 10% to 48% female. How? They offer two sections of the intro class, one for kids who went to programming camps and have coding experience, and one for the newbies. They broadened the programming assignments so that students can choose one that resonates with them and that they’ll find more fun and fulfilling…for example, a robotics problem, a physics problem, or a biology problem. They also send every female CS major to Grace Hopper, the largest conference for women in tech, to be inspired, see role models, and imagine their future career. (Source)

Perhaps less well known is what happened at Carnegie Mellon University in 1995. That year, only 7% of freshmen computer science majors were women. CMU made specific changes that, by the year 2000, resulted in 42% of the freshmen being women. What were these changes? Four things. They reached out to high school teachers about how to make their programs more gender neutral, they created a more inclusive admissions process to no longer favor prior programming experience but to look for potential, they broadened the scope of early coursework by adding a course on how CS can impact society, and they added “Big Sister/Little Sister” mentoring for the female students. CMU noted that these changes not only attract more women to computer science but also make the culture more inclusive for all. (Source)

Last but not least I want to give a shout-out to the CS Department here at the College of William and Mary. At the undergrad level, the enrollment this year is 24% female declared CS majors. And over half of your graduate degrees in Computer Science will be awarded to women this May.

What’s happening today
My daughter is a high school senior, and she plans to study computer science in college. (I thought I was going to have to bribe her, but I didn’t!)
Last year, we toured colleges, and on each campus I asked about the gender ratio in their computer science departments. The answer from tour guides and computer science professors was consistently, “I don’t have the exact numbers, but it’s approaching 50-50.”

I’m seeing some similar reports in the news, like what’s happening at UC Berkeley. In February, they announced that they have more women than men in their Introduction to Computer Science class.

Are we finally getting back to where we were in 1985? Maybe. I’m optimistic and thrilled for my daughter, knowing that she has a great chance of having many other female students in her computer science classes like I did. I’m happy for the software industry in general, knowing that there is a growing pipeline of female talent. We can’t claim success until the National Center for Education Statistics reports a sustained change in the ratio, but it sure feels like more women will be part of the force shaping our tech future.

Why I’m Optimistic
In the meantime, I’m going to celebrate the successes I see.

One success is the Girls of Steel FIRST Robotics team, located in Pittsburgh and sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center. Last month these young women won the Engineering Inspiration Award at the Buckeye Regional FIRST Robotics competition. I think they’re going to be part of the force!

Another success is my friends’ daughter Hannah and three of her classmates from Loudon County Academy of Science, a public school in Northern Virginia. They won top prizes in last month’s regional science and engineering fair, and Hannah took first place in the Computer Science category. Just last weekend, she won first place in Virginia’s State science and engineering fair. She’s clearly part of the force!

I’m hopeful that, because of what you’ve heard today, each of you can set aside any unconscious biases you might have and do what you can to get more women to join the force.

1. If you have young girls in your life, encourage them to attend coding camps, after school robotics programs, or teen hackathons and to take high school coding classes.
2. If you are an educator, what can you do to help address the intimidation factor with your students? Harvey Mudd and CMU have made substantial changes, but not every school is there yet.
3. If you simply want better tech solutions to meet the world’s problems, do what you can to encourage more women to try tech on for size. It’s not going to fit everyone, but it’s going to fit more than we have today.

Thank you.

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.