There’s more and more interest in attracting women to careers in technology, but the industry remains challenged to achieve gender parity.
Women are less likely to pursue careers in tech than they were in 1984, when women made up 37 percent of those earning bachelor’s degrees in computer science. In just over 30 years that number has dropped to 17 percent.
And women are less likely to stick around than their male counterparts. About 56 percent of women leave their tech jobs for other fields — more than twice the rate as men.
All these factors mean that women hold only 21 percent of computer programming jobs.
So what can we do to help attract and retain more women in tech?
Kristi Riordan: "To attract and retain more women in tech, the industry needs to be a more active participant in combating the barriers women face."
After working in the corporate field for nearly two decades — where I was often one of the few women in the room — I jumped at the chance to become the chief operating officer at Flatiron School. Our first class of coding students didn’t have gender parity, but our founders were passionate about creating diverse classrooms to enable the most effective learning environments. We’ve been able to achieve much greater participation by women, and in recent years we’ve consistently reached 50 percent in our online courses.
Over the past four years I’ve talked to numerous women who have gone through our programs about pursuing a career in tech, what obstacles they encountered along the way, and how they powered past them. Their experiences pushed us to focus on three areas where we can help attract more women to tech: awareness, confidence, and access.
When I talk to our students, I love to ask them, “What was your personal journey? What brought you to this field?” Their answers generally reference “my dad,” “my brother,” or “my uncle.” It’s a person they know in their extended network who has worked in this field. But the problem for women is that 90 percent of the people mentioned are men. Women don’t have enough role models in technology.
I’ve also heard many women express a desire to make a difference in the world. In tech, we need to shed light on the types of careers that can create social impact. Tech skills make an individual incredibly valuable and can be the path to a dream job. We’ve seen women apply their coding skills to digitize media at the New York Public Library, improve civic engagement at the New York City mayor’s office, and help improve access to clean drinking water at Charity: Water.
Companies — along with universities and coding academies — need to work together to highlight the wide range of careers that use coding. They need to send their female leaders out as spokespeople to establish a new generation of role models. When women realize that learning to code can open doors for them to virtually any field, they are far more likely to consider it as a potential career path filled with as much purpose as future promise.
Closing the confidence gap
Self-doubt affects everyone. We just seem to speak about it more with respect to women. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg —arguably the most successful female executive in the last 10 years — talks about moments when her own confidence was shaken. Why should the rest of us be any different?
“Imposter syndrome” is when we’re presented with a new, difficult challenge and feel like we clearly don’t belong — like we’re imposters. We tell ourselves “I’m no good at this” instead of thinking about it as a growth moment. I’ve seen Flatiron School female graduates turn imposter syndrome on its head by recognizing that the ultimate confidence booster is their ability to learn right in the moment of their greatest self-doubt.
It’s hard to work through self-doubt in isolation. Connecting with people in your community is the best way to understand what you’re feeling is normal. At Flatiron School we try to create many moments for these types of connections through things like women-only study groups and “Feelings Friday,” during which our students spend an hour articulating their challenges from the past week. These connections help people realize their self-doubt isn’t an anomaly — it’s the norm and gives them the confidence to fight through it.
Companies should look for their own opportunities to develop conversations and routines that combat imposter syndrome in the careers of their employees and the broader tech industry. Some of the most effective industry speakers on campus at Flatiron School have been tech executives talking about their personal experience with imposter syndrome.
The pay gap for women remains at 20 percent below men, in part due to the types of careers women pursue and related lower compensation. Women have half the savings of their male counterparts and take longer to repay student debt. And when it comes to children, women spend twice the amount of time on caregiving as men. All of these factors mean we need to create new pathways for women to access careers in tech — one of the most lucrative areas of our future workforce.
To counter the forces women face in acquiring technical skills, companies have an opportunity to use their brands to drive awareness and reduce the financial burden through targeted scholarship programs with education partners. For example, Flatiron School is partnering with Lyft to offer 25 partial scholarships for women in our online software engineering course. Many companies are also establishing apprenticeships to help non-traditional graduates launch their careers.
To attract and retain more women in tech, the industry needs to be a more active participant in combating the barriers women face. It needs to help women discover the amazing opportunities available, provide good role models, and support the new pathways creating access for women today. Strong partnerships across industry and education will reverse the trend and help women make up a growing percentage of those pursuing a future in tech.