When I talk about potential professions with my daughter, the words engineering and technology are the first to come out of my mouth. Granted, she is only 4 and wants to be a gymnast, artist or firefighter -- as of this week anyway. When it comes to my retirement, however, I am banking on her becoming a female entrepreneur and founding the next multi-billion dollar tech company.
Unfortunately, she and her female counterparts are facing challenges in the tech industry, namely a significant gender gap. By most estimates, women comprise only 30 percent of the workforce in engineering and tech-related fields.
In one case, however, an examination of female members on GitHub, one of the leading open-source systems for software developers, showed a considerably lower rate of participation, at 6 percent. Despite the increased awareness of this disparity in the tech industry, the gender gap continues to be the largest it has been in decades.
This is a problem for tech companies and the tech industry, not just in gender equality or good corporate citizenship, but also for productivity and the bottom line.
As Breanden Beneschott, the co-founder and COO of Toptal, a well respected online network of freelance tech engineers and designers, explains, "Men and women are equally intelligent, statistically speaking, so out of the smartest 10 people in the world, five should be male and five should be female. If your team is anything less than an equal balance of men and women, then it is probably not the best it can be."
In 2013, Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou provided an honest look at the underrepresentation of women at her company, which helped spur other tech companies to publish demographic data. These influential organizations recognized the significant gender gap and began spearheading recruitment initiatives to correct it. These initial efforts have demonstrated, however, that recruiting more female engineers alone is not the answer.
For instance, Etsy, a peer-to-peer ecommerce site focused on handmade or vintage items and supplies, decided in 2011 to make hiring more women a core value of the company. A year later, only one of its 40 new full-time engineers was female. This poor result was not due to poor recruitment, but rather the lack of female engineers in the job market, as Etsy’s CTO Kellan Elliott-McCrea explained.
It turns out the root problem is much more systematic, and it starts when girls are still in school. According to GirlsWhoCode, 74 percent of middle-school girls express interest in the science, technology, engineering and math ( STEM) fields, yet only 0.4 percent of high-school girls plan to study computer science as a major in college. Young women are simply losing interest in these fields as an area of study and a profession as they progress from middle school to high school to college. Reversing this trend is the place to start.
After the company’s failed recruitment efforts, Etsy switched gears. They began by making a significant financial donation to Recurse School, a New York-based programming retreat for aspiring engineers. Furthermore, Etsy Hacker Grants provide needs-based living expense grants to female and minority engineers. The company also sponsors organizations such as CodeNow and GirlDevelopIt, programs focused on assisting girls who want to learn to code. By investing in the education of women in tech, the company is not only creating a more diverse applicant pool but also attracting female engineers through its exemplary commitment to education and inclusion.
The payoff for Etsy is already noticeable. One year after it launched Etsy Hacker Grants, the number of female engineers at the firm grew from four to 20.
At the same time, Intel announced similar initiatives, such as its massive Diversity in Technology Initiative, which through a partnership with GirlsWhoCode is helping to provide more educational support to a greater number of young women. Moreover, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich has indicated that Intel plans to get involved on a primary-school level with the intention of giving girls a clear path to becoming engineers from a young age.
While Etsy and Intel are sponsoring outside-education programs, Toptal initiated a plan to support and educate potential female developers through an in-house one-on-one mentorship program. Toptal Scholarships for Female Developers will award 12 aspiring female engineers of any age and educational background a $5,000 scholarship and a year of weekly mentoring by a Toptal senior developer. This program will provide scholarship recipients with training and an opportunity to gain valuable insight into the life and work of top technologists in the industry.
Additionally, Toptal hopes to increase the representation of females on open-source sites such as GitHub by requiring program participants to make meaningful contributions to these sites and publish educational content about their experiences. In addition to providing female developers with experience, Toptal’s goal is to increase the number of female educators and mentors in the industry.
It is not an easy or quick path to gender parity in tech. It requires the focus and attention of companies and both men and women to actively encourage and support women in technology through long-term investments in education and mentorship initiatives, all while fostering an industry-wide culture of inclusion. It also requires the engagement and support of parents to send a strong message to aspiring female engineers, developers and programmers to stay the course.
Of course, I jest about my daughter being my retirement plan. I am perfectly content with raising a fire-fighting gymnast who paints murals on the weekends. As long as she can help me navigate new operating system updates, that is all the return I need.