Tech companies are grappling with a diversity issue — women make up only a quarter of positions for which computer and math skills are paramount. Why the shortfall? Unfortunately, girls today aren’t choosing careers in technology, and as a result, it’s harder for them to get into core tech jobs, stay in the field, and advance.
Kimberly Bryant, CEO of Black Girls Code, brings a unique perspective to the issue of diversity in the workplace as she has experienced firsthand many of the same challenges women face today as they pursue careers in technology. We had the opportunity to interview Kim while in San Jose for the Adobe & Women Leadership Summit, here’s what she had to say:
What are some of the myths and facts about why there are so few women working in these fields today?
Kimberly Bryant: The biggest myth is the idea that girls are not interested in science or engineering. At Black Girls Code, we began our program by offering mobile app development, but quickly expanded to include engineering centered topics like robotics, as girls love creating through hands-on application. With over 200 sign-ups scheduled months in advance, the response has been great.
On the other hand, what is true is the fact that women and girls don’t like the solitary perception of the field. To motivate girls to engage, we reframed technology by presenting it through the lens of social impact. In other words, we showed them how creating a mobile app, for instance, can solve a problem in their community. For many girls, seeing the bigger picture or the reason behind coding was enlightening. Wrapping technology skills around societal issues and relating it to solving problems in the neighborhood or at school was the key to sparking interest.
Why aren’t there more women in tech? What are some of the contributing factors?
Kim: Research shows that women do best when surrounded by a support system. Yet, girls simply aren’t seeing other girls in tech-oriented classes. Add to that the reality that teachers and counselors often become gatekeepers, actually discouraging girls from pursuing tech-related classes. When my daughter entered her first computer class, she received tremendous pushback from the teacher who thought that she was too young to comprehend the material. Inadvertently, well-meaning teachers often discourage girls looking to engage in technical topics, directing them to pursue more “suitable” subjects. Working with educators and showing them ways to engage students – female, as well as male students – is critical.
Environment is also a contributing factor. Creating an open environment is essential for preventing girls from disassociating themselves before they even get into the field. In one study, posters with traditionally “geeky” content like robots were hung on the walls in tech classrooms. On average, girls didn’t do well. Yet when the posters were replaced with neutral content, girls displayed more confidence, participated actively and thrived.
What role do you think corporations should play? And where should they start?
Kim: Of course, without a trained workforce, businesses will find it difficult to grow and thrive. Supporting pipeline programs like Black Girls Code can help the next generation of students access the skillsets they need to successfully fill these roles. The industry is changing rapidly; we can’t wait until high school to introduce these skills or we won’t have a diverse workforce to draw from.
Companies also need to revisit culture, specifically when it is unfriendly to women and people of color in tech roles. We can feed more diverse talent into the pipeline, but unless companies are willing to transform themselves from the inside out, the change will be insignificant. Women today are not staying in tech careers long-term and many drop out before achieving their career goals. Companies need to address what is happening within the organization, and identify ways to support and encourage women to stay in those ranks.
The good news is we can encourage young companies to build diversity in from the ground up. In many ways, the first set of engineers that are hired set the tone for those to follow. If young companies, like those who are creating the next Facebook or Adobe, get it right from the beginning, we’re likely to see more businesses grow and succeed that are truly inclusive.
Finally, companies need to rethink recruiting processes when seeking talented engineers. By limiting the search to Stanford, Caltech, MIT, and Harvard for instance, they’re likely to find only a certain category of engineers. Reaching out to community colleges and other non-traditional institutions can expand the pool of qualified candidates. Companies have work to do to create pathways to positions and access for students to come from other avenues.
Finally, what can we all do to support diversity in the workplace?
Kim: Many organizations are addressing the question of how to enable our youth to become tech creators not just consumers. I would suggest to everyone to find an organization that resonates and volunteer. That’s how we are going to see change, and that’s how together, we will move the needle forward.