Across a variety of industries, the demand for talent with digital skills continues to outstrip the supply. In recent years, many companies have realized that one way to fill this skills gap is to address the significant gender imbalance in roles like software engineering, where men outnumber women three-to-one in the US and by even larger margins in other countries like the UK and China.
This hasn’t always been the case; women were the first programmers in the early days of computing, before coding was seen as a prestigious and lucrative profession. Yet the real shift toward programming being such a male-dominated profession is even more recent, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani pointed out in a keynote address at Gartner’s ReimagineHR event in London on Wednesday: In 1995, women made up almost 40 percent of the computing workforce in the US, whereas today, they make up less than 25 percent. And at a time when there are roughly 500,000 unfilled positions in computing in the US and as many as 700,000 in the UK, Saujani argued, the issue isn’t a question of gender parity for its own sake: companies need women in tech just as much as women deserve the opportunity to do these jobs.
So why are so few women taking jobs in computing? For one thing, the tech industry has developed a reputation as an unwelcoming work environment for women: Sexism and sexual harassment scandals have emerged at several major tech companies in the past two years, while women in tech say they are often pressured to cut short the leave they take when they start families, even as tech companies continue to offer world-class parental leave policies. To that end, bringing back women who left the workforce to raise children or care for aging relatives is one way companies are looking to close their tech talent gaps.
Yet a more fundamental obstacle, Saujani explained, comes much earlier in women’s lives.
As tech companies have often noted when attempting to explain their slow progress toward gender parity, relatively few girls pursue educations in computer science, narrowing the pipeline of female talent for the tech jobs of tomorrow. That’s not because girls aren’t interested in technology, Saujani stressed, but rather because of a culture that has reinforced the message that computers are for boys and discouraged girls from exploring careers in this field. The mission of Girls Who Code is to counteract those cultural messages and help more girls get inspired to become programmers by exposing them to the craft in middle and high school. That work also includes efforts to highlight the stigmas female coders often face—like the ones called out in the awarding-winning satirical PSA which Saujani played during her keynote:
The organization, which Saujani founded six years ago, has already engaged almost 90,000 girls across the US with its programs, and will soon expand into the UK and other countries around the world. When they attend college, Girls Who Code alumni choose majors in computer science and related fields at a rate 15 times higher than the US national average, and 16 times the average for black and Latina women. The non-profit’s goal is to achieve gender parity in entry-level computer science jobs by 2027, and Saujani said she was confident that it is on track to reach this goal.
Much work remains to be done, however, in changing the cultural conversation around technology and stop sending girls the message that they are not smart, analytical, or creative enough to succeed as programmers. Boys, Saujani noted, are taught to be brave, take risks, and not fear failure. By contrast, girls are raised to be perfect, which leads them to doubt their abilities and discount the value of their work.
Saujani shared a revealing anecdote of a girl in one of the organization’s immersion programs who told her instructor that she wasn’t able to figure out a coding assignment. The instructor looked at her screen and saw a blank text editor, but when she hit “undo” a few times, she saw that the girl had begun writing a program but had deleted it, because she wasn’t confident that it was good enough. This, Saujani said, was an example of the kind of mentality we as a society need to stop cultivating in girls. Combating this expectation is the subject of her new book, Brave not Perfect, which developed out of a TED talk she gave in 2016.
While gender equality and women’s empowerment are more than sufficient motivation for the work Girls Who Code and similar organizations are doing, employers and society writ large also benefit from having more women in the computing workforce. For one thing, women’s perspectives and life experiences can help tech companies close their blind spots. For example, Saujani pointed to a recent report about how some tech companies were unaware that domestic abusers were using products they offered, like home virtual assistants and smart appliances, as tools to target and control their victims. Had more women been involved in building these tools, she suggested, the tech firms that developed them might have anticipated and been able to prevent this problem.
For employers, the upside to bringing more girls into the tech pipeline is also clear, since the already significant tech talent gap is projected to grow in tandem with demand for coding skills. The gender gap in today’s computer science classes translates into a shortage of talented women in tomorrow’s talent market; for organizations thinking proactively about their future talent needs, that’s certainly something to keep in mind. Like other forms of corporate social responsibility concerned with training and workforce development, supporting initiatives that introduce girls to tech can also generate an immediate benefit for an organization’s employer brand—especially when it comes to attracting women in tech roles. This is why we’re seeing companies like BlackRock partnering with Girls Who Code, and Uber and Lyft making donations to it.