The problems with Silicon Valley's skewed gender ratio go far beyond the workplace. One aspect of the problem is the pipeline: The share of women graduating with computer science and engineering degrees has dropped significantly in the last three decades, falling from 35% in the 1980s to less than 19% in 2015.
This decline is not only due to a lack of computing education from an early age in the U.S., but a lack of peer support as well. It's this component that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In-tern program, a summer initiative for interns at some of the biggest tech companies in the Bay Area, aims to address.
The program, now in its third summer, is an extension of Lean In's Computer Science & Engineering (CS&E) Student Chapter, which was started in 2015 as a partnership between Facebook, LinkedIn, and the Anita Borg Institute. The Chapter encourages women to start "circles", groups of eight to twelve individuals who meet informally, on a regular basis, to discuss their work and personal lives.
“I’m so happy to see our CS&E Circles connecting students interning at Bay Area tech companies, because peer support is essential to keeping women and underrepresented minorities in computer science and engineering," Sheryl Sandberg told Refinery29 over email.
If a summer internship gives undergraduates a peek at what life might look like in the field they're hoping to land, it's arguably just as important to develop a meaningful peer network during those months off-campus. It's a version of networking that's less about finding people who will help you get a job, and more about establishing connections with peers in the industry.
"We believe that in order to have women stay within computer science and engineering they need to build that community where they feel there are others who look and sound like them so they don’t feel like they’re the only woman within their major or course," Jess Erickson, the Facebook Diversity Program Manager who oversees the company's involvement with CS&E circles told Refinery29.
The idea to bring Lean In's circles to summer interns came in part from co-founder Maria Hollweck. Hollweck, who is now a software engineer at Facebook, started a CS&E circle as an undergraduate at Columbia University. She saw the benefits, and started a circle during a 2015 summer internship at Facebook. That one small circle expanded to many — this year, over 650 summer interns, the majority of which are young women, are part of the Lean In-ternship program. Members of the program meet with their circles outside of the hours of their regular daytime internship, in addition to attending some scheduled evening events.
Even though many interns have the same goal in mind — to get a job offer from the company they're working for — Hollweck said that competition miraculously doesn't factor in to circles due to the fact that circles usually don't have members who are interns at the same company. She's also quick to note that the 272 men in this year's program are just as important as the women.
"It was amazing how many of them came up and asked [me] how they can help get more women on their team and how they can support more women in their fields," Hollwek said.
Although it's less than three years old, the Lean In-ternship initiative seems to be working: Many women who are part of summer circles have gone on to establish circles when they return to school. Over 250 CS&E circles now exist worldwide, and most stay in touch with members from their summer groups.
"As soon as we complete our degrees, we know know we'll all end up back in the Bay Area," Anusha Chowdhury, a software engineer intern at LinkedIn and member of this year's Lean In-ternship program told Refinery29 of her relationships with group members. "This is not just limited to the summer."