While things have come a long way since the 1950s, Silicon Valley still struggles with attracting and retaining a diverse talent pool, with women making up only 30 percent of the technology workforce. Despite a STEM talent shortage that may be at its worst level since before the Great Recession, according to research by Harvey Nash and KPMG, efforts to expand the diversity of the talent pool lack substance.
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"The norm for the technology field is indeed predominantly male, and computer science is no exception," says Bonnie Crater, CEO and president of Full Circle Insights, a technology firm specializing in marketing and sales performance management solutions.
Crater points to a 2015 survey which found that only 16 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees are awarded to women. The good news, however, is that women at some universities are showing a growing interest in computer science.
"In the fall of 2015, [Reuters] reported that computer science was the most popular major for Stanford women," Crater says. "While [women] measured 30 percent of the total computer science majors and not 50 percent, the growth is encouraging."
Meanwhile, at Harvey Mudd College, more than half of the computer science majors are women, thanks to a concerted effort on the part of the college.
"This was done by changing the curriculum to make computer science introductory courses as interesting to women as to men," Crater says. "Harvey Mudd created a track for students without any programming experience, made the emphasis of the course work on practical problems, and changed the programming language from Java to Python, which more closely aligns human communication."
One of the main reasons technology fields struggle to recruit women is likely because women just don't feel comfortable entering those fields, Crater suggests.
"While job opportunities abound in computer science, girls need more mentoring and encouragement to take advantage of the economic opportunity," she says.
Crater calls Girls Who Code, which has mentored 40,000 girls in computer science across the country, "one bright spot" in the landscape. At the OWN IT Summit at Georgetown University inn 2016, Crater ran into "many undergraduates who were really motivated by their experience with Girls Who Code."
"While women continue to be underrepresented in the computing and engineering fields, both academically and in the workforce, it has been shown that at least in these program examples, computer science has a shot at being gender neutral," Crater says. "I'm optimistic that more effort by a combination of technology companies, mentors, schools, and nonprofits can make progress toward a gender-neutral tech industry."
Being on the Right Side of History
It's only a matter of time before women take their proper place as half of the technology workforce, and companies that make the effort now will be remembered by top female talent in the future.
"It starts with having a culture that champions strong women in leadership roles," Crater says. "Consistent with that is a guarantee of equal compensation for equal work. This is as true for attracting women applicants as it is for keeping women employees. Similarly, having benefits that cover women's health and well-being is equally important."
The first step tech companies can take to move away from recruitment efforts that resist diversity is to re-examine existing corporate cultures.
"Successful and innovative organizations are known to optimize people, processes, and technology," Crater says. "The 'culture of genius' is one of excellence in problem-solving ability. However, there are other types of genius required to optimize people and processes. I have found that diversity of thought, gender, and ethnicity breeds much more business innovation than simply someone who is book smart or who can solve a Rubik's Cube in less than 10 seconds."
For those wondering how to begin balancing the scales, Crater has some advice: "At the outset, companies should be interviewing as many female candidates as male for the same position. To aid in recruiting, having women in senior leadership roles is incredibly important for defining company culture and helping to reduce inherent biases."