April 12, 2016
by Mitra Best
We need to include and unlock the potential of the entire population when solving complex challenges.
As the proliferation of digital technologies disrupts the business landscape, technology executives are scrambling to find the right skills to keep pace. Recognizing the unprecedented impact technology has on inventing the future, why are we overlooking almost 50% of the potential talent pool?
It is ironic that while technology has broken many barriers to innovation, barriers to women’s engagement are rising. We explored gender inequalities in software development during my participation on the Empower Women panel at the United Nations 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60). After watching a powerful documentary, CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, I was reminded of my years as a computer science (CS) undergrad in the late 80s, when approximately 30% of CS graduates were women. Back then, I assumed we’d reach parity in 10 to 15 years. I was disappointed to learn from the documentary that in 2015, only 18% of CS graduates were women.
Why did girls lose interest in computer science?
- Marketing & Media – With the advent of personal computers in the 80s, marketing campaigns targeted mainly boys and men with the allure of pong and war games. This one-sided blitz spun into a social narrative that gave birth to the predominantly male techie geek culture, alienating girls in the process. Movies like War Games, Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science only reinforced the notion of boy geniuses saving the day.
- Access & Exposure – Outside of school curriculum, boys are exposed to science and technology from a young age, as cultural norms usher them into the world of video games, robots, or other activities where STEM takes root. Meanwhile, stereotypes and unconscious biases perpetuate the notion that girls are not interested in technology. Societal patterns are deeply etched, becoming harder to shake as time passes. In the late 60s, my mother was convinced she would one day conduct business, watch TV, and shop on a desktop computer. Fortunately for me, she openly influenced me to be among the engineers to make this happen.
Why do we need more girls and women interested in technology?
Clearly, technology will continue to be a vital catalyst to innovation. By 2030, I envision coding will be synonymous with literacy. If you can’t code, it will be as if you can’t write. This doesn’t mean you need to become a professional programmer (just as you don’t need to become a professional writer). Software will drive innovation across industries, and excluding half of the population from inventing the future is bad business for everyone.
As Melinda Gates said, “When you invest in women, you invest in people who invest in everyone else.” Balancing gender disparity in technology will add richness to our families, communities, businesses, and countries. As more women discover the empowering impact of technology, we will see increased innovation in societal imperatives, which is good for everyone!
What can executives do to bridge the gender gap?
- Be a role model: Perceptions about careers start early. When young girls see successful women in technology, they begin to imagine more choices for their own future. Men in STEM can also be role models for girls, by sharing inspirational stories about women in tech and using gender neutral language. We all need to encourage girls to engage with technology, and illustrate how it can enrich so many aspects of their lives, regardless of their career path. Media plays a powerful role in how we relate to people. Organizations like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media work with the entertainment industry to create capable female characters in films and television. Portraying female characters as smart, savvy, and strong will not only empower girls, it will help raise a generation of boys that see women as heroes too, which will go a long way toward thwarting misperceptions.
- Support STEM education: Public initiatives like Computer Science for All empower students with skills to become creators in the digital economy. However, until coding is included in public-school curricula, we still have a STEM education gap. We can help fill the gap by lending financial and job placement support to non-profit resources like Codecademy, Girls who Code, Code to Inspire, Code.org, Udemy, and General Assembly.
- Expand access to technology: Providing access to collaboration platforms and advanced computing resources provides greater flexibility for the entire workforce. Women can choose to stay in the workforce while opting to expand their families. Men can participate in a greater share of the workload outside the office.
Access to technology and information in emerging economies is giving rise to more women-owned start-ups. We’ll see game changing innovations come from emerging economies, where technology will help solve resource scarcity issues and develop new commerce vehicles. Given a chance, women can make the world a much better place.
We need to include and unlock the potential of the entire population when solving complex challenges. We can begin by dispelling gender stereotypes when we interact with our kids and fostering diverse and inclusive work environments for our colleagues.
To achieve gender parity, we need both men and women in private and public sectors to actively encourage and support women in technology through investments in education, active mentorship, and creating a culture of inclusion.
How many women are on your senior team? What barriers do you see to equalizing the playing field to create truly high-performing teams? I welcome your thoughts.
Image shared by Radiofabrik.