Code has no gender

It’s time to retire those stereotypes. Sex discrimination in tech is bad for women, society, and the bottom line

The value of digital labor

Harvey Mudd College is a small private school in Claremont, California, with about 800 undergraduates, a 12.9% acceptance rate and a curriculum focused on math, science and engineering. Like most US colleges, Harvey Mudd struggled for years to attract female students to its computer science courses. In 2007, women made up 33.1% of the student body but only 6% of CS graduates.

Harvey Mudd faculty and administrators adopted a three-part strategy to address their CS gender gap. First they restructured the introductory computer science course, splitting it into two levels divided by experience. Because first-year students with programming backgrounds tended to be male, this move made it easier for women to get started in the field.

Next, Harvey Mudd started providing CS research opportunities to undergraduates after their first year, with the goal of exposing female students to real computer science problems as soon as possible. And finally, the college gave first-year students opportunities to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, where they could network with other female techies and meet potential employers.

The strategy worked. Last year, 56% of graduating CS majors at Harvey Mudd were women. And colleges across the country have since copied Harvey Mudd’s approach to closing the CS gender gap.

Opportunity cost

Unfortunately, Harvey Mudd is still an outlier. According to the National Science Board, women earn only 18% of CS bachelor’s degrees in the US, although they take about half of all science and engineering degrees.

Those stats represent a host of missed opportunities for young American women with an aptitude for math and science. The median pay for computer and information research scientists is currently $118,370 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS predicts that CS research jobs will grow 19% by 2026.

And although women hold only about a quarter of jobs in computer and mathematical sciences, the tech industry has one of the smallest pay gaps between male and female professionals. Women in tech earn 94% of what men earn, according to the American Association of University Women.

American companies are missing out on the talent and unique perspectives of female engineers.

The computer science gender gap is also an epic fail for American companies, who are missing out on the talent and unique perspectives of female engineers. Speaking at the 2014 White House Science Fair, President Barack Obama said: “Half our team, we’re not even putting on the field. We’ve got to change those numbers.”

Benching female engineers seems especially foolish when you consider that women’s choices account for up to 85% of all buying decisions in the U.S., according to a Deloitte study. Meanwhile, a recent Harvard Business Review study found that companies with diverse workforces are 45% more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year, and 70% more likely to say that the firm captured a new market.

Blame the marketers

Historically speaking, the computer science gender gap is a relatively recent phenomenon. Women dominated computing jobs during the early years of the tech industry, starting in World War II and continuing into the 1960s, according to research by tech historian Marie Hicks.

After that, female representation in tech fell off a cliff. In 1970, women earned only 13% of all computer science bachelor’s degrees. That number rose to 38% in 1984 and then started to slide again, just as personal computers were showing up in American homes.

Those early PCs were marketed almost exclusively to men and boys. According to NPR journalist Steve Henn: “The idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.”

Mercifully, that culture is starting to change. Much work remains to be done, but many educators and companies are making concerted efforts to recruit more women technologists and create female-friendly work environments.

Next year in Orlando, thousands of young female coders will gather for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration. Named for an American admiral and computing pioneer who invented the first compiler back in the 1950s, Grace Hopper is the world’s largest networking event for women in tech. Many of my  colleagues will be there, so come by and see us at the ServiceNow booth.