Women in Tech: Nurturing the Next Generation
“I have very personally felt the overwhelming loneliness, self-doubt, and frustration that often comes with the minority status of a woman in engineering. As much as I can help others get through or avoid those difficult stretches that I myself had to weather, I’d like to. As a bonus, the more women (and minorities) that enter and don’t leave the field, the better it all gets for everyone, including me!”
~ Tracy Chou, Software Engineer, Pinterest
When Kelley Irwin and Debra Christmas set out to write their book Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive, they had a number of goals in mind – but perhaps the most important one was to help forge a path for the next generation of women in tech.
They knew that the number of women in the US completing computer science degrees – which had been on the rise from the early 70s until the mid-80s – was on a steady decline.
They also knew that part of this decline was due to continued gender-specific prejudices that at best skewed interest in technology away from women and girls as early as kindergarten age, and at worst a continued cultural reputation of the tech industry being actively anti-women.
And they knew they wanted to be an active force for changing ALL of the above.
Girls, Girls, Girls
Sadly, girls begin to self-select away from subjects like maths and sciences as early as kindergarten, mainly because they are not provided with positive, affirming experiences in STEM by parents and teachers. A recent multi-year study by Google and Gallup showed that:
- In schools where computer science is taught, just 15 percent of girls are enrolled in classes compared with 27 percent of boys.
- Just 37 percent of girls reported having an adult in their lives who encouraged them to explore technology, compared to almost half the boys.
- About a third of girls in grades 7-12 say it’s important for them to learn computer science, compared to nearly half the boys in those grades.
- Twenty-nine percent of parents of girls think it’s likely their children will need to learn computer science for their career, compared with 36 percent of parents of boys.
- And black students overall are still less likely than white students to have a class dedicated to computer science at their school – 46 percent versus 52 percent.
Those statistics are just sad, because when girls DO have the chance to experience STEM, they perform just as well as boys do. Families, leaders, educators – even politicians and policy makers – can and should play a more active role in inspiring young girls and women to explore the exciting world of IT and tech in general.
“Not All Girls are Meant to Get a Degree”
Not all girls are meant to get a degree. Imagine hearing those words from the Dean of your college. Kelley Irwin did, when she sought career-path guidance and advice as a young woman. Not surprisingly, she set out to prove him wrong. Kelley tells that story in the book, then goes on to share another anecdote that illustrates just how powerful it is for women and girls to talk to, be friends with, and be mentored by other women working in IT.
“I spoke with 100 young women at a conference for women in computer science…there was a major university in Ontario well known for its computer science program including talented professors, variety of courses, and difficult entrance criteria. The students in this program were known for their skills and knowledge, and they were often offered appealing jobs before they even started their final year of school. I asked [those] in the room to raise their hand if they had been accepted into that computer science program. Twenty-five young women raised their hands. I then asked how many of them decided to attend that university. Everyone dropped their hands except one woman. I continued by asking the million-dollar question. ‘If you had known these twenty-five women before you started university and you all decided to go together to this school, would this have changed your decision?’ Many of them said yes.”
Fitting In and Finding Friends
It turned out that a major reason the women mentioned above chose not to attend this prestigious computer science program wasn’t because they didn’t think they had the chops – it was because they didn’t think they would fit in. Or that sure, they would fit in academically, but they wouldn’t find enough friends.
All the women were capable and confident, able to hold their own in a technical and social environment. They had the grades and the background to be accepted into this very competitive program. But they wanted more from their school. They wanted friends. People like them. Yes, girlfriends. Sounds silly, but it’s not. They didn’t see themselves mirrored in the program, and that had an impact on their choices.
Enter “the ripple effect” – created by female underrepresentation in the tech industry. Scarcity of female role models for young women, lack of mentorship for those just starting in the field, missing sponsorship from senior executives as they move through the ranks, and lack of opportunities for growth, the ripple effect goes on and on.
Nurturing the Next Generation
It behooves us women already working in IT to actively nurture the next generation. Mentor young women and girls so they believe they can succeed and gain a spot on that ladder. And lend a hand to the women who are beside you on that ladder, so you climb together and hold up that mirror to the next and the next and the next generation. Make sure they see themselves represented.
Be female role models to learn from, female colleagues to bond with, and industry leaders who share advice and provide counsel (you can get started by joining our Women in Tech Tribe!). It takes effort, but it’s vital that other women in tech know someone is there who will have their backs. Yes, the role models of successful women working in senior roles in IT have grown during the last 30 odd years. We have come a long way. But we’re not done yet. Join us.