The lack of women in tech is more than a pipeline problem

I have a radical proposition: women who want to study, work in, and lead businesses in science and technology have much to add and should be proactively empowered to do so.

At first glance, it’s easy to characterize the lack of women in technology and entrepreneurship as a pipeline problem.

The statistics are tellingly bleak — Girls Who Code reports that about 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science. And yet, by the time they make decisions about what to study and where to start their careers, something happens.

Only 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees and 26 percent of computing jobs are held by women. It’s worse at the top of the corporate world — just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry are held by women.

A better question might be, how can we collectively work to improve women’s participation in the tech industry at each key stage of their careers?

In a recent episode of KPCB’s “Ventured” podcast, I spoke to two leaders on this topic — Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, and Merline Santil, who heads operations in the CTO’s office at Intuit.

In our conversation, we explored the factors that drive women to pursue tech careers from their earliest years to later in their careers. From her work founding the nonprofit Girls Who Code, Reshma is leading a charge to make computer science and STEM more appealing to the youngest women.

Merline, who has been named one of the most powerful women engineers in tech, is an accomplished tech executive with firsthand experience in building a more inclusive corporate culture. Below we’ve shared some insights from our discussion.

America’s most important domestic issue

Not having enough women in computer science and technology is a serious domestic issue and should be prioritized as such. As Reshma emphasized, 1.4 million jobs will open in computer science by 2020, yet we’ll have enough qualified graduates to fill just 29 percent of them — and less than 3 percent will be filled by women.

Women in computer science have dropped from 37 percent in the 1980s to less than 18 percent today — despite the fact that women comprise over 50 percent of today’s US workforce. As women increasingly become the breadwinners for their families, their participation in this higher-paying segment of the job market matters.

This is more than a conversation about gender parity — it’s an existential issue for our industry, and an economic challenge for our country.

Earlier entry points into computer science

We can motivate women to enter these fields well before they’re starting high school and college.

Girls Who Code is attacking the pipeline problem at ever-earlier entry points in students’ school years: training teachers in elementary school how to code, producing coding board books to put its curriculum into classes, offering after school programs in middle school, summer immersion programs in college, and so forth.

“We’re meeting girls where they’re at in every single age demographic to get them inspired,” Reshma says.

Support networks along a career path

As a Haitian immigrant who came to the U.S. when she was five, Merline graduated as valedictorian of her class. After deciding to major in math, she stumbled upon computer science as a career in part due to great guidance.

“It is not lost on me that a lot of people invested in me,” she says. “For me, computer science has enabled me in one generation to really turn my life pretty much from …nothing to something.”

That encouragement at every stage — in school, early in a career and beyond, is critical (as we’ve discussed in previous podcasts). It’s why Merline advises younger women that it’s OK if they walk into a room and they’re the only person who looks or acts the way they do: they still belong and deserve to be there.

Creating social networks to gain support and inspiration from others are powerful motivators that can help women as they progress through their careers. Great organizations like She Plus Plus and Lean In Circles exist to help at different stages of girls’ education and career trajectory.

A more inclusive tech culture

Aptitude isn’t the deterrent; it’s culture. Dude-dominated images of programmers from popular culture, the lack of female role models, and broader societal attitudes toward women in tech make careers in our industry unappealing to many young women.

That’s why new efforts like Helena Price’s Techie Projectand John Maeda’s latest Design in Tech report are so exciting — they demonstrate the power of recasting stereotypes. Providing more role models and active participation from mentors, men and women who have valuable lessons and experience to share, creates meaningful change.

Girls Who Code has partnered with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Square and Twitter, and corporations like Intuit to provide mentorship to girls in this program. The organization has taught more than 10,000 girls in 43 states, and 90 percent of its alumni are now going on to major or minor in computer science.

Corporate involvement and commitment

Keeping women in the workforce with company practices that prioritize an inclusive workplace at all levels marks another area of focus. As Merline shared, Intuit sets a strong example.

Its numbers for workforce inclusion are better than the industry average: women make up 38 percent of Intuit’s global workforce and about 27 percent of its overall technology positions (the industry average is about 30 percent of women overall and 15 percent in technical positions).

To get there, Intuit invests in recruitment and retention of women in the workplace. They cultivate women recruits for leadership roles as they start and build their careers, and just as importantly, have  policies  focusing on employees’ results rather than time spent in the office, flexible work policies, and career support for female employees and those on the management track.

With so many aspects of our industry ready to be made more inclusive, each of us plays a part. Whether it’s donating to great organizations, promoting young women in STEM, giving your time to serve as a jungle guide for talented women leaders early in their career, or developing company policies for inclusive recruiting and flexible work and more.  There’s something for each of us to contribute. And in the process, we just might net out the stronger and better for it.