Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani at ReimagineHR in London (Gartner)
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.
Girls and underrepresented minorities made up a larger proportion of US high school students taking the Advanced Placement exam in computer science this year than ever before, Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi announced in a Medium post on Sunday:
In 2018, a total of 135,992 students took the AP Computer Science exam, a rise of 31% from last year. Female students and underrepresented minorities showed the greatest increases from last year:
- Black or African American students — 7,301 participants, up 44%
- Hispanic or Latino — 20,954 participants, up 41%
- Female students — 38,195 participants, up 39%
- Rural students — 14,184 participants, up 42%
Last year, these figures grew even more rapidly, increasing by 135 percent among girls and 170 percent among underrepresented minorities between 2016 and 2017: a spike Partovi credits to the launch of Code.org’s Computer Science Principles course. According to Code.org a nonprofit organization that focuses on expanding access to computer science, 70 percent of students in CS Principles classrooms say they want to pursue computer science after graduation, so the organization expects these growing numbers of students to translate into more diversity in the tech workforce down the line.
Google is expanding its Howard West initiative, a partnership with Washington, DC’s Howard University, from a three-month summer residency into a full-year program to which students from other schools will be invited. Howard Sueing, a Google software engineer and an instructor at Howard West, announced the change in a blog post on Tuesday:
We’re announcing that in 2018, the program will expand from the original three-month residency to a full academic year—and for students not only at Howard, but also from other esteemed Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The expansion was part of the original program goal, and it’s wonderful to see it blossoming so quickly.
The pilot exceeded our expectations in many ways. Students and faculty noted both the rigor and immersion in life at Google as the program’s most compelling aspects, and the Googlers involved felt there was a true exchange of knowledge, culture and understanding. Almost all of the students were rising juniors, making them eligible to apply for full software engineering internships at Google this coming summer. Notably, when the session concluded, 14 students applied. Four of them received offers, and they all accepted.
This fall, 100 students from Howard and other HBCUs will begin the immersive program at Google’s campus in Mountain View, California, TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey reports.
New research by a team of economists from the Equality of Opportunity Project complicates the claim that people from certain backgrounds are just not as productive/innovative/creative/analytical as people from other backgrounds, hence their inability to achieve comparable levels of success in the workplace. The study, which Vox’s Matthew Yglesias got an early look at, found that strong test scores in childhood were less reliable predictors of becoming a successful inventor than growing up in an affluent family in a place with lots of other inventors—in other words, the smartest kids from wealthy families grow up to be inventors and entrepreneurs, but the smartest kids from poor families don’t:
[B]y linking patent application data from 1996 through 2014 to federal income tax returns, the team was able to track inventors’ lives from birth through adulthood to understand who is inventing things and where they come from. And by focusing on the geography of innovation, they show that direct exposure to a culture of invention and to role models appears to be playing a key role.
By way of explaining the lack of gender and racial diversity among their technical staff, US companies sometimes cite the “pipeline problem“: They would like to hire more women and minorities, they say, but not enough of them are coming up through college STEM programs with the skills tech employers require.
Recent trends suggest, however, that this excuse may be wearing thin. Code.org, a nonprofit that focuses on expanding access to computer science, happily reports this week that the number of both girls and minority students who sat for the College Board’s Advanced Placement exam in computer science registered huge spikes this year, increasing by 135 percent among girls and 170 percent among underrepresented minorities between 2016 and 2017:
Racial diversity in Code.org’s AP Computer Science classrooms exceeds the nation’s average, because of our work in urban schools. While we’re not ready to report aggregate statistics for Code.org’s partner schools, the results we’ve seen from school districts using Code.org are incredible. For example, in Broward County Public Schools, FL, more African American students took AP computer science exams this year than in the entire state of Florida last year, and a significantly higher percentage received a passing grade. Broward County Public Schools also saw record participation by Latinx students, whose participation in AP computer science more than tripled since last year.
In a blog post on Thursday, Google’s VP of global partnerships Bonita Stewart announced the establishment of Howard University West, a residency program on the Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California for computer science majors from the historically black university in Washington, DC. The program, to be co-taught by Google engineers and Howard faculty, will start this summer for rising juniors and seniors in Howard’s computer science program, Stewart said, and the company hopes to launch similar programs with other historically black colleges and universities in the near future:
HBCUs are a pillar in the CS education community, producing more than a third of all Black CS graduates in the U.S. Google already has a strong partnership with Howard through Google in Residence (GIR), a program that embeds Google engineers as faculty at Howard and other HBCUs.
Through GIR we’ve learned a lot about the hurdles Black students face in acquiring full-time work in the tech industry. The lack of exposure, access to mentors and role models are critical gaps that Howard West will solve. We’ve also heard that many CS students struggle to find the time to practice coding while juggling a full course load and part-time jobs. Left unchecked, systematic barriers lead to low engagement and enrollment in CS, low retention in CS programs and a lack of proximity and strong relationships between Silicon Valley, HBCUs and the larger African American Community.
Google’s announcement comes at a time when many employers in tech and other highly-skilled professions have been exploring new ways to build stronger and more diverse talent pipelines by forming partnerships with educational institutions. The new program will also enable Googlers to get involved in teaching and mentoring without having to leave Mountain View and get pulled out of the promotion and evaluation cycle for engineers, the Washington Post’s Jena McGregor adds:
Silicon Valley employers sometimes blame slow progress toward greater diversity in the tech sector on the “pipeline problem”: The tech giants would like to hire more women and minorities, they say, but there just aren’t enough candidates from diverse backgrounds pursuing education in STEM fields and obtaining the skills they need to qualify for the jobs these companies are looking to fill.
Today, tech companies are increasingly recognizing that the pipeline problem isn’t going to solve itself, and are taking proactive steps to build bigger and more diverse pipelines by partnering with universities, coding bootcamps, and other educational institutions to create more opportunities for students from underrepresented communities to find careers in the field. At HRE, Andrew McIlvaine profiles two such initiatives, at Cisco and EY:
As part of its new approach, Cisco used its “Diverse Representation Framework,” an internally created data-analytics tool, to help it identify schools that would be good potential sources of diverse talent. It also trained its campus recruiters to use data mining to identify top students in science, technology, engineering and math fields, says [Kelly Jones, director of talent acquisition and global university relations], adding that engineers constitute about 60 percent of Cisco’s annual hires.
The company is also focusing on building a pipeline of diverse STEM students early on in their college careers. “We go a bit deeper, focusing on students who are freshman and sophomores, because juniors and seniors have already decided on their major — but sophomores and freshmen are often still exploring,” she says.
EY, McIlvaine adds, “starts even earlier, focusing on diverse high school students to get them interested in the accounting profession”: