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Why aren’t women staying in computer science?

Women at E3 2015
E3 Expo
It wasn’t always like this, you know. The tech scene wasn’t always a continuation of frat culture with more algorithms thrown in. Women weren’t always unicorns in the tech scene, comprising just 11 percent of engineers in the field (on a good day). And while men in tech jobs overall in the U.S. currently outnumber women seven to three, with a staggering 80 percent of software developers in New York being male, this gender gap wasn’t always this pronounced.

In fact, the sad truth of the matter is that when it comes to women in tech, we’ve regressed, and are regressing still. In 1984, 40 percent of computer science majors in colleges across the U.S. were women. 50 years ago, nearly half of the programmers in the field were women. Today, only 18 percent of college grads with a computer science degree have two X chromosomes. And in the workplace, it’s even grimmer.

The topic of gender inequity, particularly in tech, isn’t anything new, but the problem is that it’s really not getting much better. Even in pop culture, female computer scientists are quickly typecast in a way that reinforces this strange, almost fetishized sense of “otherness.”

Take, for example, Lisbeth Salander of the acclaimed Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. In Steig Larsson’s books and in both movie adaptations of his work, Lisbeth’s character is depicted in an almost masculine way. She is hard, tough, thoroughly anti-feminine (though fiercely feminist).

Then there’s Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, who, while technically gifted, is characterized in an almost clown-like manner. She provides the comic relief for an otherwise highly intense show, and ends up being taken a bit less seriously than the other characters.

So what happened? How did we lose so many women in the computer science field, and how did we create a brogrammer culture that all but prevents women from joining in? Whereas programming was in fact initially seen as “women’s work,” the early days of the ENIAC have long since passed us by.

Today, it would be ludicrous to read the following in Cosmopolitan Magazine, but in 1967, this was indeed a reality: “Now have come the big, dazzling computers — and a whole new kind of work for women: programming. Telling the miracle machines what to do and how to do it. Anything from predicting the weather to sending out billing notices from the local department store. And if it doesn’t sound like women’s work — well, it just is.”

But when personal computers became more accessible and more popular, they were branded as boys’ toys in the same way that Barbies were geared towards girls, and slowly but surely, women began to turn away from programming and computer science. And now, we’re stuck in a situation where, as per Stanford University studies, “women’s quit rate in technology exceeds that of other science and engineering fields — with a full 56 percent leaving their organizations at midlevel points in their careers.”

That’s the real problem — even if we convince more women to major in computer science in college, nothing will change if they enter the workforce only to be pushed out a few years later. In 2014, Kieran Snyder interviewed 716 women who decided to leave their jobs in the tech industry after an average of just seven years. The vast majority of them said that their decision ultimately came down to a discriminatory work environment. It didn’t matter how much they liked the work — at the end of the day, the climate was simply too toxic.

And this isn’t just a matter of being “oversensitive.” As Rachel Thomas, an instructor at Hackbright (a women-only coding bootcamp), a math Ph.D., and a software developer in her own right noted, “Investors preferred entrepreneurial ventures pitched by a man than an identical pitch from a woman” at a margin of 68 to 32 percent according to a study conducted by Harvard Business School, Wharton, and MIT Sloan. Researchers noted, “Male-narrated pitches were rated as more persuasive, logical and fact-based than were the same pitches narrated by a female voice.” Another study carried out at Yale found, “Applications randomly assigned a male name were rated as significantly more competent and hirable and offered a higher starting salary and more career mentoring, compared to identical applications assigned female names.”

Best of all, when 248 performance reviews of tech all-stars (both male and female) were examined, negative traits like being abrasive, strident or irrational appeared in 85 percent of reviews for women. Those same words appeared in just 2 percent of men’s reviews. As Thomas says, “It is ridiculous to assume that 85% of women have personality problems and that only 2% of men do.”

When it comes down to it, solving the problem of gender inequity in tech has to come from multiple levels. Not only should young women be encouraged to pursue their passions (whether they are technical or not) from a young age, uninfluenced by gender stereotypes, they must also be equipped with the tools they need to combat sexism in the workplace. And most importantly, management at tech companies must be made acutely aware of the problems that persist in tech work environments, and there must be proactive measures taken to address these problems.

Otherwise, tech will continue losing out on half the available workforce. And if those world-slaying companies really want to take over the world, that’s not a volume of talent they can do without.

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Lulu Chang
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