April 6, 2012

Solving the Women-in-Tech Pipeline Problem

Today, the final article in my three-part series on solving the women-in-tech pipeline problem was published in The Daily Muse. The dearth of women in technology is not a new topic of complaint, and I'm getting a little bit tired of all the whining without any concrete solutions. In a recent article about the notable absence of widespread technical skills among so-called "women in tech," I pointed about a serious problem: Women aren't choosing to become computer scientists.

It struck me as a big enough problem that I wanted to dig in and share some ways to solve it. After months of research and interviews with a wide variety of people from a 12-year-old girl in the Bronx to a computer science major at Stanford University to a software engineer at Twitter. I identified the three main hurdles women face to pursuing a computer science career, and I propose three solutions. Here are the abbreviated summaries:

Problem #1: Many girls don’t really know what computer science is
As a member of Gen Y, I was told from birth that I could be anything I wanted to be: a doctor, a lawyer, even an astronaut. But no one ever told me I could be a computer scientist. I didn’t even know that was a career path. In 2008, 67% of college-bound boys described a career in computer science as very good or good, whereas only 26% of college-bound girls felt the same.
The Solution: Educate young people about the field
If we want to solve the pipeline problem, the first step is telling young women what computer science is. Computer scientist needs to be a clear career path that little girls can envision and aspire to, the way they do with careers in medicine and law. Let’s include computer scientist protagonists in children’s books and create toys that allow kids to “play programmer” as easily as they “play doctor.”

You can read the full version of article #1 in The Daily Muse or Forbes

Problem #2: You can’t be what you can’t see
In the documentary Miss Representation, Marian Wright Edelman says: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Though hyperbolic, Edelman’s quote touches on a key barrier to women in computer science: a dearth of strong role models. Without other women to look up to, many young women are self-selecting out of a technical career path before they even really give it a chance.
The Solution: Celebrate role models that girls can look up to
Girls need to see that computer scientists come in all shapes and sizes. We all need to be part of that change. Let’s not let grievances about the lack of women in tech ignore the women who are already there. Changing our cultural perceptions of what a computer scientist looks like will take a concerted effort across different kinds of media. Personally, I’m starting with something simple: an online gallery of photos of women who can proudly proclaim, “I am a computer scientist.” If you know someone we should add, please submit a photo. If you know a young girl who thinks she doesn’t fit the part, show her the gallery and change her mind.

You can read the full version of article #2 in The Daily Muse

Problem #3: Girls haven’t coded before
When I talked to women who have decided to pursue a career in computer science, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them credited early exposure to programming as the greatest factor in their decision to become engineers. Conversely, they cited a lack of early exposure to computer science as the primary deterrent for women who leave—or never join—the field. The sense that boys have a head start creates a high competence threshold for women in computer science, even those who have prior experience in the field.
The Solution: Teach computer science to middle school girls
So, solving the pipeline problem requires giving our girls the confidence they need to go head-to-head with their male classmates. Unless we put our female and male students on equal footing going into college, young women are at risk of perceiving their efforts as a failure, feeling behind, and quitting early to pursue something else. Key to this is getting middle school girls to think programming is cool. As the College Board stats show, reaching girls in high school is too late—at that point, they’re already opting out of studying programming. Plus, the earlier they start learning, the better their chance of success in the field will be.

You can read the full version of article #3 in The Daily Muse

I'd like to give special thanks to a few of the amazing women who shared their stories with me for this series: Kathy Cooper, Taiya Edwards, Sara Haider, J.J. Liu, Omosola Obetunde, Amber Reyngoudt, Stephanie Volftsun, and Sophia Westwood.

And I'd like to give an extra special shout out to the truly inspiring Angie Schiavoni, who founded CodeEd, a national organization teaching underserved middle school girls how to code. If you want to learn more or get involved in NYC, SF, or Boston, check out their website at www.codeed.org.

1 comment:

kevandcan said...

I very much agree, Anneke. This is something we actively look at on the Information Systems Advisory Board I sit on. We've formed a network of women in Information Systems from companies around the world and they interact with, mentor, and coach women who show some interest in the field.