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Tristan Parker

Women in Computing: Turning the Tech Industry Tide

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Picture an office at a technology company headquarters – specifically, the office where the software developers and programmers sit. What do you think of? Probably something like this: rows of desks crammed together holding endless screens, keyboards and wires, with rows of techy guys crammed together at the desks, tapping away manically at those keyboards and staring intently at those screens as endless lines of code whizz past their eyes.

But apart from the fact you’ve no idea what any of those lines of code actually mean, what’s wrong with that picture? How about the fact that it’s techy guys you’re picturing – where are the techy women?

Don’t blame your subconscious, though. It’s unfortunately a fairly accurate picture of some tech offices around the world. A lot of tech offices, in fact. But why? Women are just as interested in technology and just as skilled at coding as men, so why has computing ended up so male-heavy?

Through the ages

In another Primo blog, we looked at what’s being done to encourage girls to take an interest in coding at a young age. There are clearly lots of inspiring, successful projects out there, but it seems that drive can often get lost somewhere along the way – after the early stages of education. So let’s look at what’s being done to help retain girls’ interest in computing as they continue through education and beyond – when they’re considering what career path they want to pursue, and even when they’ve begun following that path.

The jilted gender equation

Research carried out by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that in 2015, women in the United States accounted for only 12 per cent of engineers and 26 per cent of computing professionals, despite making up around 47 per cent of the country’s workforce.

Not content with just quoting the stats, an AAUW article gives some direct pointers for driving change: ‘10 Ways to Get More Women into Engineering and Tech’. The suggestions range from early-age ideas related to toys and play (‘Let the girls in your life tinker with things, break toys, get dirty, and fail’), to proactive methods of tackling gender bias head-on: ‘If you’re a man who works in engineering or tech, refuse to sit on panels that don’t have at least one woman.’

Let the girls in your life tinker with things, break toys, get dirty, and fail

Decline and fall

A fascinating report from ComputerScience.org (‘Women in Computer Science: Getting Involved in STEM’) details female students’ declining interest in computer science in the US as their education progresses. Summarising the findings of an article from thejournal.com, the report states that:

‘Two-thirds of elementary-aged children indicate an interest in science; however, as they enter middle school, the percentage of interested girls falls dramatically. By high school, many girls who previously took advanced scientific courses drop their studies.’

It’s not hard to guess how that decline might continue to affect career choices as those girls enter employment. However, to really understand the issues, we need to go back even further than these worrying contemporary stats on computer teaching for kids. The ComputerScience.org report highlights the alarming fact that ‘substantially’ more women took computer science degrees before home computing became popular in the 1980s.

iStock/marionbirdy

The golden days of home computing: not so golden for everyone

As counter-intuitive as it seems, the mainstreaming of computing signalled a steady decline in the number of female computer science students in the US (demonstrated by figures from the National Center for Education Statistics).

But… why? It seems bizarre to think that as more computers became available and more families used them, interest in studying that subject from roughly half the population began to drop off. For an answer, cast your mind back to those ‘tech-guy’ stereotypes we talked about earlier – the ones that fill those tech company offices. Now do some further stereotyping and imagine how those tech-guys might have been at a younger age: wide-eyed kids fascinated by the tech revolution happening around them.

Coding programmes for kids and coding projects for kids weren’t available back then, but home computers certainly were, and that represented a golden opportunity for emerging tech companies, keen to market their shiny new toys to those wide-eyed kids. Unfortunately, many companies had a specific target audience in mind, as research from the National Science Foundation shows (summarised by ComputerScience.org):

The central conclusion is that the first personal computers were essentially early gaming systems that firmly catered to males. While early word processing tools were also available, the marketing narrative told the story of a new device that met the needs of men. As more males began purchasing computers for personal use, the ‘nerdy programmer’ classification began to take hold in the professional world of computer science.’

Reversing the trend: the groups championing, nurturing and supporting women in tech

As AAUW and numerous other sources point out, awareness-raising is a key factor: ‘It’s true that there are fewer women than men in [STEM] fields, but there aren’t none,’ the organisation points out. ‘Send the message that women belong in engineering and tech by encouraging conferences to ask more women to speak.’

Thankfully, there are a number of organisations geared towards not just sending that message, but shouting it loudly and helping others to find their voice. Organised by the Anita Borg Institute (a social enterprise working to make the technology industry better reflect the diverse range of people who use it), the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is ‘the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.’ The event is named after Lieutenant Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US Navy and one of the first programmers, whose work led to one of the earliest coding languages, COBOL (read more about Grace in a previous Primo blog on ‘5 Brilliant Female Computer Programmers’).

The Grace Hopper Celebration is a huge conference with a similarly huge reach and impact. Taking place from September 26-18 in 2018 (in Houston, Texas) with an expected 18,000 attendees, it features hundreds of talks and networking opportunities for women working throughout various tech industries. Crucially, the event also focuses on providing information and mentoring opportunities for female students and academics interested in tech.

From women who code to Women Who Code

No discussion of women in computing is complete with mentioning this immense and inspiring group. Women Who Code (WWC) is a non-profit organisation working to encourage more women to enter the tech industry, as well as supporting those already in the sector through specially designed programmes, services and events, including meet-ups.

WWC has over 10,000 members across the globe, from engineers and entrepreneurs to developers and executives to those who are just beginning to learn coding skills. Also for those starting out on the journey is Girls Who Code (GWC), an organisation with similar aims and outlook, but focusing on students and younger females not yet involved in the tech industry (read more about GWC in a previous Primo blog).

Supporting female students by offering these kinds of opportunities is proving to be a key factor in creating a more balanced computer science sector. The United States in particular seems to excel in the area of academic support, with specific groups set up at universities around the country. Michigan State University Women in Computing, Stanford Women in Computer Science and the Maryland Center for Women in Computing are three such groups, helping students to find internships and offering advice and information on tech careers, as well as opportunities to attend events like the Grace Hopper Celebration.

If it wasn’t clear already, let’s spell it out: the drive towards getting more women into computing (as well as other STEM employment) isn’t a small, niche group of people pursuing a fringe interest in their spare time; it’s a big movement and it’s a big deal, gathering ever more momentum as more people work towards a fairer, more representative technology industry.

iStock/StockRocket

Muddying the rules on teaching computer science

The academic resources and opportunities mentioned above are great for those already studying computer science (and other tech and STEM-related disciplines), but how do you get more students studying these subjects in the first place? Try asking the Harvey Mudd College Department of Computer Science in California.

In 2007, the introductory computer science course at Harvey Mudd was redesigned by the faculty, ‘to focus less on straight programming and more on creative problem-solving,’ explained college president Maria Klawe in a Newsweek article from 2015. This included using team-based coding projects, as opposed to traditional homework assignments, and explaining how coding benefited wider society as a whole – therefore eliminating some of the cliquey, closed-off stereotypes associated with programming (and programmers). ‘Most importantly,’ wrote Klawe, ‘they made the courses fun.’

The results were extraordinary. The reworked programme went from being the ‘least-liked course’ in the core curriculum to ‘the most popular.’ After four years, the number of women majoring in computer science jumped from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.

STEM toys and breaking down the stereotypes

That ‘creative problem-solving’ approach was key in attracting more female students. Nurturing that creative approach at an early age, then, is just as crucial. There’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest that how children play and what they play with can impact these fields later in life. The bad news: it seems that there’s an unfair and unnatural bias working against girls in this area.

Research carried out by the UK-based Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in December 2016 found that boys were almost three times more likely to receive a STEM toy for Christmas than girls.

The organisation’s message in response to this was clear: ‘The IET stresses that the societal stereotypes driving these gendered listings could be having a knock-on effect for the next generation of engineers, especially girls, impacting their future career choices. Whilst the onus is on the parents to think outside the pink and blue boxes when shopping for their children, toy retailers and search engines also have a responsibility not to perpetuate gender stereotypes.’

The IET research demonstrated girls’ interest in STEM subjects at school. What’s now needed is a method of maintaining that interest as girls progress through education and into work.

That method, says Mamta Singhal – a toy engineer and IET spokesperson – can be mapped-out by the toy industry: ‘The marketing of toys for girls is a great place to start to change perceptions of the opportunities within engineering. The toy options for girls should go beyond dolls and dress-up so we can cultivate their enthusiasm and inspire them to grow up to become engineers.’ For more on the gender stereotyping of toys, see our blog post: ‘Why We Should Just Let Toys Be Toys, Especially When They Help Children Learn.’

Creative play can produce creative computing – and perhaps even a fairer tech industry

Creative toys for girls, then, are important for fostering that ‘creative problem-solving approach.’ The best girls’ toys are going to be toys that allow girls to begin exploring the kinds of skills needed to study and work in STEM subject areas.

Cubetto, for example, introduces both girls and boys to the basics of coding through the medium of a smart, friendly, wooden robot and some colourful wooden blocks – and all without those screens that we mentioned earlier, the ones full of endless lines of code whizzing past.

It provides exactly the kind of opportunities for creative play that are going to help develop that all-important ‘creative problem-solving approach’ we keep hearing about. And it’s certainly not short on fun, either – which the president of Harvey Mudd College seemed to think was a pretty important element in those new-and-improved computer science courses that attracted so many more students of both genders.

A male-dominated tech industry isn’t going to change overnight. But it is going to change over time, as long as we keep nurturing, encouraging and supporting, continuing the work of those innovative and inspiring organisations. Basically, we all need to keep our eyes on the prize.

And when that prize is a more balanced, more effective, fairer technology industry (an industry which, by the way has produced 1.64 million digital tech jobs and fuelled £170 billion turnover in the UK, as well as accounting for around 7.1 per cent of the United States GDP last year), how can we afford not to?

Tristan Parker is a freelance writer and editor, covering culture, lifestyle, arts and technology. He’s written for Time Out London (where he also spent several years as staff writer on the Music and Nightlife desk), easyJet Traveller, The Times Magazine, Clash Magazine, DJ Mag, Music Week and Collectively, among others. He’s also the editor of e-Access Bulletin, a website and newsletter focusing on digital accessibility.

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