“Where are all the women?” is an irritatingly common refrain in tech circles. Plenty of executives and investors, male and female, are seeking to advance more women in technology. But how?
We need to take a three-pronged approach, bolstering education, opportunity, and visibility for women in technology.
Increasing the pipeline of qualified women is a first step. Improving girls’ access to science, technology, engineering, and math education is vital: organizations like the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are investing heavily in so-called STEM initiatives. Get girls interested in science and math, the thinking goes, and they grow up into women earning 33 percent more than their peers in non-STEM jobs.
Myriad organizations work to advance girls’ interest in technology, from the brand-new Girls Who Code to the Girl Scouts, with long-established programs for “STEM girls.” At the undergraduate level, courses like Harvard’s CS50 are aimed at first-time coders, and their unintimidating, practical approach has encouraged more young women to learn to write software. Similarly, as the need for web technology in all industries increases, the need for mid-level programming will create roles for “blue-collar coders” with fewer formal educational credentials.
Matching qualified female candidates with employment opportunities remains a challenge, however. Just getting qualified women in to meet tech company hiring managers demands that industry insiders broaden their professional networks to include more women.
An organization called CODE 2040 has developed an approach to improving minority representation in the industry. It mentors black and Latino technical students and places them in Silicon Valley startup internships, and has a similar program for young women in the works.
Mentoring is key to expanding opportunities. Young women need to see mid-level and senior tech industry women succeeding. Last year, I attended a networking event where I spotted fewer than a dozen women among several hundred attendees. The “woman in technology” keynoting the event was a celebrity marketing organic baby products, while a male colleague explained the underlying business model on her behalf. It’s discouraging, and a missed opportunity, for young women not to encounter role models to spotlight the path towards leadership in the industry.
Visibility is the third prong. There are many qualified tech industry women out there. They’re hiding in plain sight. The “Where are the women?” refrain often occurs after a male-dominated tech conference where few women were considered to speak and even fewer actually spoke. In such contexts, some women may consider the risks of being outspoken to be disproportionate to the rewards. The experience of women bloggers would seem to bear out their concerns. They experience more ad hominem criticism than men, as well as actual sexual harassment, according to Rebecca Greenfield in her Atlantic Wire article, “The Plight of the Girl Tech Blogger.” And although women outnumber men on Twitter, they are less likely to be followed and less likely to be retweeted. To encourage women to dare to be visible, we have to change how women with opinions and agendas in technology are treated.
Broadening the definition of professional technology roles could also increase women’s visibility in the sector. As important as it is to create more female engineers, it’s equally important to avoid the internecine conflict about “who counts.” Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement address at Harvard Business School this year spurred debates about whether women who get on the rocket ship of a startup instead of building it are setting their sights too low. Let’s instead pitch a bigger tent: embrace digital project managers, technical writers, and female executives as part of the growing women-in-tech community.
Getting these three pieces—education, opportunity, and visibility—in place will go a long way to expanding the presence of women in the tech industry and answering “Where are the women?” once and for all.
Perry Hewitt is Chief Digital Officer at Harvard University and was a participant in November’s Techonomy 2012 conference in Tucson. Click here for a complete video archive of Techonomy 2012.