What I want other parents to know about women in tech
I’m a 16-year veteran of the tech world, a “recovering coder,” and the mother of a 6-year-old girl. And if I was looking at tech from the outside, I would be freaked the F out right about now.
The headlines about women in tech have been bleak these past few years. Discouraging data on gendered salary gaps, personal accounts of marginalization (or worse) at the hands of male colleagues, stories of harassment at conferences… and that’s just what bubbles up to the surface.
Amid such dire news, any parent could be forgiven for hoping their daughter favors chemistry over coding.
But what grabs fewer headlines is the fact that there’s a lot going right with women in tech. Talk to people on the inside and they’ll tell you, if nothing else, there’s a ton of energy surrounding this issue. We haven’t “turned the corner” just yet, but we’re rapidly approaching the tipping point.
That’s great news for parents, young women, and tech companies alike. Because we need your daughters. We need their diverse perspectives in order to build technology for everyone — not just for the boys. And we need them to know that we’re working our butts off to make tech a great place for them to build their careers.
The tech industry has officially woken up
The very best thing going on with women in tech is, paradoxically, the aforementioned dire headlines. They exist because women are speaking out! As someone lucky enough to never have felt undervalued because of my gender, these stories have been one hell of a wake up call.
Male colleagues I’ve spoken with feel the same way. Like me, many of them didn’t give much thought to gender diversity until recently. Now, the 1000-watt spotlight on it has created a generation of male allies who are outraged by the inequalities and motivated to rectify the situation. They see this not as a women’s issue, but as a whole-industry issue that we have to solve collectively.
The issue’s visibility corresponds to a notable increase in the visibility of technical women. Five years ago, it was rare to see women on the stage at tech conferences. Today, women represent around 25% of speakers. And that number is growing, thanks in large part to changes in the way selection panels operate.
“Blind reviews” that scrub the names from speaker submissions, and active recruiting of female speakers, are now mainstream. And the media are contributing to visibility by profiling more and more technical women.
I cannot understate the long-term impact of putting technical women in the limelight. If girls never see women coders (or scientists or civil engineers or astronauts), it’s difficult for them to picture themselves as future techies.
Consider that in the 1980’s nearly 40% of college graduates coming out of computer science programs were women. Around that same time, early home computers and game systems emerged — and were marketed exclusively to boys. That’s also the point when women’s participation in comp sci programs tanked.
I’m not saying the Commodore 64 is solely to blame for the subsequent decline in young women pursuing computer science education and careers, just that media makes a strong impression on young minds. In this case, gendered advertising helped pave the way for tech’s now-infamous homogeneity. So as we try to reverse that trend, the more female role models we can show our girls, the better.
Grown-up girls like me need role models, too. So it’s been encouraging to see my fellow techinistas come out of the woodwork in recent years and form communities. There are at least 300 Meetup groups for women in tech. Many are in hubs like Silicon Valley and New York City, but you can also find them in unexpected places like Rajathstan and Tunis. And for techie women looking to connect online, the hard part isn’t finding a forum, but choosing which ones to participate in.
Inside the workplace, mentoring circles are becoming popular, and extend to women in non-technical roles such as HR and marketing. Because solidarity — “women in tech” means both “women doing technical work” and “women working at technology companies.”
The rise of corporate diversity and inclusion programs
Speaking of the workplace… file under “better late than never”, but tech companies themselves are moving from reactive mode to pro-active mode on this issue. Over the past few years, there’s been a marked increase in the number of companies with diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs — from Google and Facebook to Atlassian, Dropbox, Pinterest, and their peers.
Besides the obvious things like recruiting women for job openings, D&I programs offer training on recognizing unconscious bias to employees. If you think you harbor no biases, even unconscious ones, think again. (Better yet, do a self-assessment using a tool like this one, created by Harvard’s Project Implicit, and see for yourself.)
Updating hiring practices is common, too. At Atlassian, we revised our job postings to include no more than five bullet points about required skills. Why? Because the research shows that, on average, women won’t apply for a job unless they feel they meet 100% of the qualifications. Men tend to apply if they feel they meet 60%.
By including only the most essential job skills on each job posting, along with other changes to our hiring process, we’ve been able to hire at least 47% women into our intern and entry-level engineering positions.
There’s a strong current of social justice running through D&I efforts, which galvanizes employees (even the straight white guys). All the energy and attention keeps diversity on the minds of managers when it’s time to hire.
But forget social justice for a second. Even a completely amoral company would do well to pick up the diversity torch. Because diverse teams make better products and deliver better service. Having a variety of backgrounds and ways of approaching problems in the room leads to more creative and robust solutions. Period. And that directly effects the bottom line.
To be sure, most of the improvements I’m talking about don’t have a direct impact on ethnic or religious diversity in tech, which will be equally hard to solve for. Even though the conversation around gender and other flavors of diversity in tech are largely happening in parallel, there is some overlap.
Take Black Girls Code for example. There are even Meetup groups specifically for Latinas in tech and lesbians in tech. Then there are groups like Code2040 and Students Rising Above, which help minority students of both genders land internships and entry-level jobs. I suspect that as the women-in-tech and minorities-in-tech conversations continue, they’ll intersect more and more.
Good for the wallet, good for the soul
The tech world has to get all forms of diversity right, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. And women stand to gain a lot from that, partly because of the financial security tech jobs provide. (The fact that many women in abusive relationships say they stay because they can’t afford to leave is a grim reminder of why financial independence is so important.) 40% of households are now headed or solely provided for by women, and it’s even higher among women of color.
I’ve been a sole provider myself, so the financial factor really hits home for me. During the years my husband was back in school after being laid off from his job as a developer, my relatively modest tech salary, along with some belt-tightening, was able to keep us out of debt.
Sure, there are loads of jobs offering financial stability. But none are as exciting as tech jobs because tech transcends industries.
Want to help map the human genome? Send humans to other planets? Create first-responder robots and electric cars? Help women in developing countries start their own businesses through micro-lending? Connect people with services in times of crisis?
All of that and more is happening, and it’s happening with software. Nearly every organization employs coders, testers, sys admins, security specialists, and/or data scientists. Degrees in seemingly dry subjects like computer science, information technology, statistics, and economics open the door to a dazzling array of possibilities.
Our girls have a bright future in tech
Looking at my daughter now — fingertips saturated with marker ink, shirt decorated with sparkly stickers, loving kindergarten — higher education feels so far away. I can’t even wrap my head around that, let alone her career. Maybe you feel the same way about your daughter.
The good news for us parents is that getting started with computing is easier than ever, and it’s changing to be ever-more appealing to girls.
There are toys like GoldieBlox that are not only adorable, but teach girls problem-solving skills. Code.org partnered with Disney to create a Frozen-themed module where you use pre-built code blocks to make Elsa ice skate across your screen. (There’s a Moana-themed tutorial, too.) A colleague of mine set up a Minecraft server at home so her daughters can get comfortable with scripting while they create blocks and change the weather in their Minecraft world programmatically. And techies all over the world are volunteering in classrooms teaching the CS First curriculum developed by Google.
Make no mistake: girls have a bright future in tech.
Our industry is at an inflection point right now. A largely white and male workforce has advanced technology this far (which, you have to admit, is pretty far). But so many capable, energetic women have historically been left out, pushed out, or have opted not to join tech in the first place. Now, with that trend steadily reversing, I can only imagine how much farther (and faster) we’ll go with a greater variety of backgrounds, personalities, and problem solving styles joining in.
So please parents, don’t let the headlines scare you. We insiders are working hard every day to make tech more inclusive so that, when our daughters get here, they can shine.
Also published at Atlassian Blogs.
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