The most popular college major for women—against all stereotypes of their inclination toward nursing or teaching—is business. Women also make up 46.8% of the business labor force, nearly matching men head to head in a field that has historically invoked images of ties and button-downs. And while the numbers get a little less even with each step up the corporate ladder, women’s business ambitions are a mark of success for gender equality in the workplace.
Except, that is, in tech. For all the advancement that women have made in business, one statistic is perhaps more eye-catching than the rest: Just 5.7% of employed women work in the computer industry. Despite loud demands for female participation from tech executives such as Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, the collective voice of Silicon Valley’s women barely rises above a whisper. This is especially confounding considering that female participation in the workforce has never been higher and the tech industry boasts an abundance of career opportunities with a nearly nonexistent gender pay gap. What’s going on?
Researchers at the University of Washington say the issue is that women are turned off by tech culture. They performed an experiment in which they asked more than 250 female and male students about their attitude toward computer science while putting them in two different rooms: one full of objects generally associated with a coding lair—“Star Trek” posters, video-game boxes, empty Coke cans—and one without. Though men showed no difference of opinion, women in the room with the stereotypical setting expressed less interest in computer science.
Jeannie Copley, the information technology faculty lead for the Personalized Learning program at Northern Arizona University, stresses that women need encouragement to push back against the cultural factors that shape “where [women] feel they belong in both society and in the professional world.” Copley cites organizations such as Girls in Tech and Women in Technology as necessary mentorship resources to “make our young women aware of technology as a viable, rewarding field to consider.” More so now than in previous years, mentorship is hailed as the missing link for female advancement in the workplace, with offshoots of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement popping up across the country. And it makes sense—women see other women’s success as confirmation that they can achieve a given position or work in a particular industry, too.
This confirmation is especially important for tech, where women have struggled to maintain a can-do attitude, battling misogyny and lingering notions that women just aren’t as good at math or science as boys. Not only do these stereotypes diminish women’s confidence, they also adversely affect their performance. In an experiment published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, women were given a math test and told it had one of two aims: to demonstrate differences in ability by gender, or to disprove that gender differences exist. The women told they were demonstrating gender differences performed significantly worse.
Mark Mahoney, an associate professor of computer science at Carthage College, says that he typically sees less confidence in his female students, and that this has caused them to abandon computer science challenges. “[In general, women] think that everything a software developer does is hard and confusing when it really isn’t,” Mahoney says. “I don’t think that males are inherently better at computer science. In fact, some of my best students over the years have been women.” For the majority of women to approach computer science with the same expectations as men, says Margaret McCoey, director of the graduate program in information technology leadership at La Salle University, they need a confidence boost. “We need to accelerate the change by helping these technically excellent ladies see their potential,” she says. “Women in high school science classes (math, computer science, and physical science) still face the old view that women should not be delving into those areas.”
McCoey’s reference to the “old view” recalls much of the 20th century and its notoriously rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until the 1960s, and the rise of the women’s liberation movement, that women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, rejecting the domestic lifestyle they had settled into after World War II. By the late 1970s, nearly 50% of all married women and 40% of women over 16 were working. Of course, women were hardly welcomed into the workplace. They faced discrimination for disrupting this male-dominated world or, at the very least, felt uncomfortable as the only woman in the room. Most girls still held limited career aspirations, as compared to boys. It wasn’t until the 1980s that girls began to express a broader set of career preferences.
The challenges that women faced then are not unlike the barriers now keeping women out of tech. So how can women speed up the process of penetrating this male-dominated industry? To start, it shouldn’t be just women trying to solve the problem. “The economy is creating far more computing jobs than U.S. schools are creating computer science graduates,” Mike Cassidy recently wrote in the San Jose Mercury News. Discouraging half the population from these jobs isn’t just a problem for women, then, but for the entire U.S. economy.
Women and men shouldn’t look to the 1960s and ‘70s for an example of how to fix this—they should set the sights back further. During World War II, Cassidy reminds us, as men went off to fight, women entered the workforce in droves, doing the work in factories across the country. The movement’s cultural icon, Rosie the Riveter, possessed a tough but feminine persona that quelled any discomfort women may have had about working in a factory. She was both comfortable and capable working a “man’s job”—qualities that today’s young women interested in computer science and technology must be told they possess. Perhaps, as Cassidy suggests, this modern-day movement should be led “not by Rosie the Riveter, but Peggy the Programmer.”
Jeannie Copley is an assistant clinical professor and the information technology faculty lead for the Personalized Learning program through Northern Arizona University. She has 27 years of experience with IT project planning, online education, and global business operations.
Mark Mahoney is the chair of the computer science department at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he teaches database design, operating systems, and software engineering courses. He has a Ph.D. in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Margaret McCoey is the director of graduate programs in computer information science and information technology leadership at La Salle University. She began as an adjunct teacher in 1980 and joined full-time as director of the digital arts and multimedia program in 1999. She was promoted to graduate program director in 2005.
Data provided by Catalyst
Image of woman courtesy of Shutterstock.