With prominent executives like Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg in the headlines, it’s easy to assume that women are closing the gender gap in the tech industry. In reality, the number of computing jobs held by women is down, from 35 percent in 1990 to 26 percent, as reported in a recent study.
It’s also apparent where the discrepancy starts, with computer science graduation rates for women down from nearly 14 percent in 2009 to 11 percent a year later.
To reverse this trend, recruitment and mentorship efforts are being ramped up at the base of the “pipeline” — in high school and college — and into the workplace.
Examples of these heightened efforts are the national Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) programs, with chapters in top tech schools like MIT, Stanford, and USC. These programs offer lab tours, hands-on activities, and mentorship opportunities for high school girls. They, and similar one-to-one mentorships, highlight the often overlooked aspects of engineering and computer science.
MIT biological and mechanical engineering professor Linda G. Griffith explains her recruitment efforts:
“Engineering boils down to problem solving, and good motivating problems can stimulate the engineer to come out in anyone who has tendencies.… So I try to show (young girls) that engineering is a liberating, wonderful, career that gives you freedom to solve problems that drive you nuts when you see them in society.”
Will these programs be enough to increase enrollment rates? In 2014, women made up no more than a third of declared engineering majors at Stanford and MIT, but anecdotal evidence paints a brighter picture.
Christy Amwake, a Stanford electrical engineering Ph.D student and a coordinator for SWE, notes the success of Stanford’s latest recruitment program.
“This year, we started a program where SWE provided mentors to local high school students to work on engineering projects,” Amwake said. “When these students presented their work at our annual banquet, they all stated that they were interested in pursuing engineering majors and that this project helped them decide that.”
But even for the highly educated and hired women starting in the industry, the reality of the gender gap in the workplace can be startling, requiring a continued mentorship role.
“When I started university I realized it was very male dominated, but it did not hit me as much as (in the) workplace, where I would be the only female in a meeting. I (was) lucky enough to have a great female mentor at work, who has helped me a lot,” says Negar Habibi, a program manager at semiconductor company AMD.
Leila Janah, founder and CEO of Sama Group, is one of the success stories in tech and she’s taking the mentorship model one step further. Her non-profit organization, Samasource, connects marginalized women with opportunities in leading tech companies like Google, LinkedIn, and Microsoft. Seeing the benefits first-hand, Janah stresses the urgency of getting more women into the industry.
“While we’ve certainly made progress, there’s still a lot to be done to bridge the (gender) gap…. It’s about placing big bets and heavy investment on our future,” Janah said. “It’s estimated that within the next 10 years, 75 percent of jobs will require tech skills, so it only makes sense that we connect women — those who have the greatest economic impact — to that opportunity.”
With efforts being made on every level to connect current industry leaders with the next generation, the future of women in the tech won’t be determined by today’s workforce numbers, but by the effectiveness of these mentorships.