At the Milken Institute Global Conference in May, moderator Rick Smith controversially asked five successful female entrepreneurs how they convinced male VCs to invest in female-oriented businesses. The ladies were candid. Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, co-founder of Gilt and GLAMSQUAD, admitted it is harder; the panelists — including Jessica Alba of Honest Company and Susan Feldman of One Kings Lane — agreed.
It’s no secret that the tech industry is very much a man’s world. Recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission figures show 80 percent of executives in high-tech are male, and just 20 percent are female. In the Bay Area in 2015, just 8 percent of Series A startup funding went to female-led businesses, down from 30 percent in 2014.
While the biggest names in tech strive to close the gender gap and build more inclusive working environments, the pool of talent on offer is predominantly male. The truth is, while retention is an issue, there are simply fewer women opting for a career in tech.
But new initiatives and an uptick of Gen Z girls opting for sciences in top-tier universities paints a very different future. What are these young women doing that previous generations have not? And what does this all mean for Silicon Valley’s boys’ club?
What’s holding back females in tech
According to Ariane Hegewisch, a study director for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, females make the decision to steer clear of sciences at a young age. CNET reported at Indiana University, 97 percent of new female students opt for subjects outside of science and computing. “It doesn’t occur to them as a career path,” said Maureen Bliggers, assistant dean for diversity and education at Indiana’s School of Informatics.
The proportion of female students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) university courses has traditionally been very low, and, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, it is getting worse. 2014 figures show just 18 percent of computer science bachelor degrees and 19 percent of engineering degrees held by women. In subjects such as biology and social sciences, we start to see the tables turn, with a larger proportion of females.
While the number of women in sciences is growing, they are still vastly outnumbered by males. Statistics suggest that this dwindling ratio of women in tech may be a case of nurture over nature. In May, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed better performance from girls over boys in a test of technology and engineering literacy administered to 21,500 students. In the eighth grade age range, 45 percent of females were scored as proficient, compared to 42 percent of boys, showing the capacity of young girls to succeed in the sciences. Capability is not the issue; rather, it seems that external factors play a bigger role in dissuading women from opting for science-related careers.
Young females are skilled and capable, yet still a disparity exists.
In 2013, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) pointed to social and environmental factors that prevent a larger proportion of females from entering STEM courses. The study claims negative stereotypes regarding young females’ abilities can lower aspirations and recommends a “growth mindset” to encourage more girls to participate and achieve in these subjects.
Forbes contributor Gene Marks claims the “real reason most women don’t go into tech” is that from early on they simply “aren’t as interested in technology-related work as men.” Marks proposes that the tech industry shift its focus from changing the current working culture to creating better educational opportunities for the young.
Bridging the STEM graduate gender gap
The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that, in 2016, STEM graduates will be the most highly sought after, earning the largest starting salaries. For a generation that grew up in the shadow of the Great Recession, this is an attractive prospect. And while STEM courses continue to be male dominated, as a new age group of girls enters colleges nationwide, in the top schools this is finally showing signs of change.
Between 2009 and 2013, UC Berkeley almost doubled its percentage of female computer science majors in the College of Letters and Science, up to 21 percent. In 2014, for the first time on record, UC Berkeley reported a greater number of females than males in its introductory computer science course. Redesigning its “Symbolic Programming” course as “Beauty and the Joy of Computing,” Berkeley emphasized the impact computing has in the world, and worked to tone down elements that may put females off. Stanford University was also able to boost female computer science enrollment from 12.5 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2013, through efforts to make the program more widely inclusive.
There are a great number of organizations that aim to get young girls into computer science and engineering.
Harvey Mudd College has become a pioneer for women in STEM studies. In 2013, for the first time ever, more than half the engineering majors and 47 percent of its computer science majors were female. University president Maria Klawe has played a large role in transforming the college, hiring a greater number of female faculty, employing a more personalized recruitment process and offering compulsory introductory computer science classes, pitching the advantages of this study in various fields.
Little by little, these efforts are beginning to spread. Just last year, Georgia Tech — which in 1952 had no undergraduate women — celebrated the highest proportion of female students, making up 41 percent of the new student body. The university attributed its new increasingly diverse freshman enrollment to “a more personal and tailored outreach.”
These initiatives help to break the barriers to STEM study for many young adults. As the number of women studying these subjects grows, this creates a strengthened workforce and a new generation of role models.
In 2014, Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women featured a great number of successful women from the tech industry, including IBM’s Ginni Rometty, who studied computer science and electrical engineering; GM’s Mary Barra, who also studied electrical engineering; DuPont’s Ellen Kullman, who studied mechanical engineering, and many more. Fortune recognized that three of the top five women were engineers, but acknowledged that still only one in seven engineers are female. College enrollment efforts go some way to growing this proportion; however, better opportunities from a younger age are also key to this.
Tech-driven initiatives for the young
The National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP) has reported that younger girls in the K-12 education stages are taking many high-level mathematics and science courses at similar rates to male students. There also is a greater percentage of young girls taking subjects such as advanced biology, pre-calculus/analysis and algebra II. A gap in physics and engineering, however, still persists, and this is typically worse in low-income and minority groups.
Many initiatives aim to solve this, helping girls develop an interest in activities such as coding from a young age. They are experiencing positive traction. In 2013, Code.org’s Hour of Code campaign, designed to help young girls interested in computer science, successfully attracted 15 million students in a week; more than half were girls.
Other programs, such as the international nonprofit organization Girls In Tech, run hackathons and coding bootcamps, and help connect women with tech jobs across the globe. There are a great number of organizations that aim to get young girls into computer science and engineering; for example, Girls Who Code, Engineering Girl and Black Girls Code, the recipient of TechCrunch’s first Include Grant of $50,000.
Initiatives to spur this movement are not limited to educators or nonprofits — the tech world is also getting involved. Most recently, Oracle invested a further $3 million to the U.S. government initiative Let Girls Learn, after pledging to provide $200 million in support of the sciences this April. The initiative aims to help teenage girls across the globe get more out of their early education, and the investment will go to helping develop STEM performance in young girls.
Google has also invested $50 million into its program Made With Code, which aims to teach girls how to code. The tech giant acknowledged that most girls decide very early on whether they will choose a tech career, and is working to provide resources to let young females explore this opportunity.
Others in the tech industry are actively seeking females, offering training opportunities to learn new skills. Peer-to-peer e-commerce platform Etsy was able to grow its number of female engineers by 500 percent by investing in training junior members; 80 percent of its customers are female, and Etsy aims to create a new generation of qualified females to better match its clientele.
We have seen that young females are skilled and capable, yet still a disparity exists. However, by targeting the younger generation, educators and tech companies are creating a new workforce of successful tech executives that will help change the perception of the industry. These new role models will quash stereotypes and encourage others to consider tech career opportunities from a younger age. This means a shake-up for the Valley, where successful women, no longer a minority, will play a much larger role in advancing the industry.