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Winning the race to the digital economy by cracking the code on the gender gap

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The facts are startling. The chasm between the number of job openings in today’s digital economy and the number of skilled workers available is growing in the wrong direction and threatening the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

Fact No. 1: In 2015, there were 500,000 new computing jobs available in the U.S., but as recently as 2014, fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates to fill them. This shortage will continue to grow as rapid advances in mobile, cloud, analytics and artificial intelligence technologies continue to redefine business, society and the global economy.

Fact No. 2: We are faced with a huge gender imbalance in technology that is only getting worse. Today, just 24 percent of the U.S. computing workforce is female. New research from Accenture and Girls Who Code estimates that if we stay on our current course, the number of women in computing will fall to 22 percent of the workforce by 2025.

The connection is undeniable and decisive action is needed. We must get more girls and women into technology careers — it is critical to creating the talent pool needed for technology jobs of the future, it is essential to our competitiveness in the digital economy and it is simply the right thing to do to increase career opportunities for women.

However, it’s not easy, and previous approaches just haven’t had sufficient impact. The challenge partly comes down to perceptions and biases within the working population that are hard to dislodge. But it’s during childhood and at school where they take root. The percentage of young women pursuing computer sciences in college has fallen from 37 percent in 1994 to just 18 percent today. Efforts to reverse this trend must start earlier.

Working with Girls Who Code, we have undertaken research to explore the forces behind the continued decline in the proportion of girls interested in pursuing computing careers. Our research shows that merely increasing exposure to computing will not be sufficient for boosting the number of girls that select computer sciences in their later years. Because perceptions of computing as being a male-dominated field are deeply ingrained, exposing girls in the midst of these stereotypes can actually put them off and further increase the gender gap. Instead, more efforts must be made to tailor engagement with girls to suit the changing influences on their attitudes and preferences as they proceed through their education.

We can unlock the potential of a large pool of female talent to not only become part of the computing workforce of the future, but to be leaders of it.

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, commented, “The urgency around the findings in this research is undeniable. Despite unprecedented momentum and attention behind computer science education, the gender gap is getting worse, not better. We must invest in initiatives designed specifically to spark and sustain girls’ interest; exposure alone isn’t enough. By doing so, we have an enormous opportunity to reverse the decline and increase the share of women in computing from 24 percent today to 39 percent by 2025.”

By identifying which factors influence girls at each stage of their education, we have developed a strategy that is far more precise, targeted and sequenced than those who have been tried in recent years. If followed through, we estimate that it could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million by 2025 and generate $299 million in cumulative earnings!

The strategy aims to have an impact on three key stages of the education cycle:

Spark interest in junior high. Our research shows that 69 percent of the potential growth in the female computing pipeline would come from changing the path of girls currently in junior high. To ignite this interest, schools and wider society need to introduce them to coding in fun ways. Girls who play computer games are four times more likely to be interested in studying computer sciences, suggesting that games manufacturers could do more to design games for girls. Our research shows that parents and teachers need greater guidance to show girls the full range of career opportunities available to computing experts, underlining the relevance of digital to solving real-world societal issues that girls respond well to. 

Sustain girls’ engagement. Our study shows that a large number of girls who were engaged in computing in junior high lose interest in high school. Girls are more easily deterred by social factors at this stage. We recommend schools redesign courses to appeal to groups of girls. The success of summer coding camps shows that creating a more supportive female environment makes a significant difference. There also needs to be a sustained grass-roots campaign supported by government and industry to dispel myths around computing (that it’s “uncool” or male-oriented, for example) and rebrand it for our digital age.

Inspire a career after college. The rebranding of computer science courses at some colleges has significantly increased the female share of course intakes, without deterring men. Other universities have created powerful mentorship programs with industry to inspire young women to take up careers in technology. Both approaches should be replicated on a larger scale.

While the U.S. is clearly the global leader in digital innovation today, the skills gap threatens our competitive strength and future. We must act in more targeted ways to tackle the unique barriers that occur at each stage of a girl’s education. By working together across schools, businesses, governments and not-for-profits, we can unlock the potential of a large pool of female talent to not only become part of the computing workforce of the future, but to be leaders of it.

Featured Image: Jonathan Kirn/Stone/Getty Images