In 2010, only 15% of all computer science grads were female. There are only 19 Fortune 500 companies run by women, and although 46% of the workforce and more than 50% of college students are female, women represent only about 35% of start-up business owners.
The lack of women in technology and computer science has created a self-perpetuating cycle. With so few women visible in technology, it is harder for girls to conceptualize themselves as engineers or computer scientists when pursuing interests at a young age. A survey of 850 girls done by the Girl Scouts of the United States found that 50% of girls feel that STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) aren’t typical career paths for girls.
The technology industry itself hasn’t done very much to break this cycle, either. As archaic as it may seem, there are still job openings specifying a male gender in the job description. The tumblr http://techcompaniesthatonlyhiremen.tumblr.com/ serves as a whistle blower for tech companies that have let male-centric gender pronouns dominate their job postings.
“If you fulfill all the above-mentioned requirements, you’re the guy we’re looking for.” – iTech Post Media Group
“The SE works with his account team to identify the customer ID decision makers…” – Dell
“He will work on new applications, porting existing applications to Rails…” – Webstop.com
Even some of the larger technology companies, which have made concerted efforts to hire more women and have somehow accomplished the tremendous task of making their job postings gender-neutral, see a lack of female leadership at the their uppermost ranks.
The bright side of this story is that there are a number of organizations out there looking to provide mentorship and advice to women and girls seeking a career in computer science.
Sarah Allen, founder of a design and development software firm called Blazing Cloud, is one woman striving to create a community that encourages women in technology.
Allen was one of the first female leaders in computer science. Graduating from Brown University in 1990 with a degree in computer science, Allen now keeps a large photo of the ENIAC computer from 1946 in her office. Next to the computer, there are two women in dresses adjusting electrical cords. When the picture was initially published in LIFE magazine, the women in the picture were unidentified and many people assumed these women were models, precursors to the modern-day Vanna Whites.
“They thought they were like refrigerator ladies, that they were props to make the machine look more attractive,” Allen said in an interview with NPR in April. In fact, the two women were early computer scientists Ester Gerston and Gloria Ruth Gordon.
The photograph in her office serves as an allegory for the current struggle facing women in computer science. A colleague of Allen’s, Mmindd founder Estee Solomon Gray, expressed to NPR her frustrations with gender inequality while searching for a design and development firm for her start-up.
“I was really surprised by how many design – let alone development – firms had women as window dressing: one woman on the team, and it turns out she’s the salesperson,” Solomon Gray said to NPR. “After a few of those, I started to get really upset.”
The lack of women in computer science is not only an issue of gender equality but also an issue of economic competitiveness. By 2018, there will be nearly 1.4 million computing job openings in the United States, but at current graduation rates, only 29% of those could be filled by U.S. computing graduates.
They have a long way to go. The first step toward progress would be for technology companies to take the disproportionately easy first step of making their listings gender-neutral.