This Is How We Can Get More Women Working In Tech

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Did those adorable Supergirls at the fifth-annual White House Science Fair this week make you a little weepy, or was that just me? I have an excuse, because I saw their picture after reading the latest report on the status of women in technology, out today from the American Association of University Women. And, no surprise, the statistics aren’t good. The research report focused on women in computing and engineering, two fields that make up more than 80% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and applied mathematics) workforce, and which have remained stubbornly male-dominated despite an increase in gender equity in many other areas.

In engineering, one of the most traditionally male industries, women made up just 12% of the workforce in 2013. And, in computing and mathematical occupations they made up 26% — almost 10% less than they did in the 1990s. These numbers are a major problem. “The overarching thing the research pointed out was the ‘boys’ club’ culture in these fields, which isn’t just holding back women, but the companies and employers themselves,” says Christianne Corbett, one of the report’s co-authors. Innovation needs diversity in order to be the best it can be, because as Corbett points out, “Technology is shaping the way we live more and more, so we really can't afford to not have women's perspectives at the table.” 

Instead of just recounting the bias and depressing statistics found in recent research, AAUW analyzed the findings and came up with some actual recommendations that companies, universities, and women in tech can use to help reverse these trends. Here are some of the most interesting.

Recommendations For Businesses
Bias is everywhere. One study in the report showed that even scientists, who make rational decisions for a living, were more likely to choose a male candidate over an identical female candidate for a hypothetical job opening — and, get this, both female and male scientists tend to offer a higher starting salary to the male candidate.

AAUW recommends combatting this behavior by removing any gendered info from application materials, and to train management to be aware of their own potential biases, using tools like this online test. Employers should also be careful to use gender-inclusive language, especially in job postings.       

Recommendations For Schools
How can universities and companies get more female students interested in engineering and computing professions in the first place? “The research shows that people just don’t tend to view engineering and computing as jobs that help people, and women care more about that than men,” says Corbett. So, when schools highlight the communal aspects of STEM careers, it increases female interest in them.

The report points out that Harvey Mudd College increased the number of females graduating in computing from 12% to 35 to 40% in just five years by making a few changes to its program. The school split the introductory classes into two levels based on experience, so those with less experience coding (usually female students) weren’t as likely to feel intimidated from the onset. Female undergraduates were also given opportunities to do research early on. And, the school brought female students to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, to show that they'd have role models and a community in computing. “The great news is that Harvey Mudd already tried all of this, and it worked, so other universities should be able to follow suit,” says Corbett.      

Recommendations For Women Working In Tech
According to one study, half of women working in engineering and computing left the field after about 12 years, mostly due to unsupportive work environments. Women in tech can help themselves and others stay in the field by seeking support networks, acting as mentors to others, and looking for projects or jobs that satisfy their own priorities, like those that help solve socially relevant problems and involve working closely with others.

Of course, the major onus isn’t on women in the field, it’s on the field itself, says Corbett. “One message we really want companies to get loud and clear is that if they want more women in the technical workforce — and they should — they need to let women know that and increase their sense of belonging.”      

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