On April 18, Swedish pop star Robyn headlined the Tekla Festival in Stockholm, Sweden, a daylong event aimed at giving girls a creative, inclusive space to explore their burgeoning interest in technology. Industry heavyweights, including Spotify and Google, sent representatives, and the media applauded their interest. Encouraging though it may be to see tech giants nurturing girls in the STEM fields, this involvement comes on the heels of Google’s 2013 EEO-1 report, which showed that 83 percent of Google’s tech employees and 79 percent of their leadership were men. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the tech and computing industry will account for almost 1.4 million new jobs in the next five years; how many spots will be filled by women?
The Women in Computing club (WIC) at the College is tackling the problem head on. President and founding member Sarah Mackey describes their mission as “getting women in the department to know each other and grow their careers.” Regular outreach, from robotics nights at elementary schools to campus visits with high school students, are a crucial part of the club’s agenda to spark interest in a fast-growing field. WIC also reaches out to current College of Charleston students who are undeclared. “The misconception is that it’s just a lot of math,” Mackey said, “and girls get to college and think they can’t do it. But this is really about solving problems.” While computer science and math frequently do mesh together, many computing students are also involved in the arts. College of Charleston’s Computing in the Arts program attracts people who want to code in creative ways, producing everything from apps and audiovisual systems to electronic music and digital animation shorts.
From Angela Ahrendts at Apple to Melissa Arnoldi at AT&T, women are making their mark in highly influential tech positions, yet women only account for 10 percent of the annual bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science, according to a recent Taulbee survey. The underrepresentation of women in technology has traditionally been attributed to a “pipeline” problem. Companies ascribe their lack of female employees to a small pool of qualified female candidates. This is certainly plausible. Only 20 percent of the high school students who take the AP Computer Science exam are girls. The gender disparity in qualified candidates may arise from the gaps that emerge early on in education. When asked to identify the biggest barriers women in tech face, Mackey answered,“The biggest misconception is that it’s too hard to do.” It would be a mistake, however, to assume that tech companies have no agency in remedying this disproportionate lack of women. An alternative to the pipeline answer is emerging in the form of the trapdoor theory, which posits that plenty of qualified women techies exist; they are simply being driven out of the industry by sexism.
According to a 2008 Harvard Business Review report, women account for 41 percent of the under-30 talent in the STEM fields, but 52 percent of this talent drops out during those same years. The study also found that 63 percent of women in STEM work environments experience sexual harassment. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa describes the practice of pattern recognition that dominates these companies’ human resources departments. The magnates of Silicon Valley “believe they know a successful entrepreneur, engineer or business executive when they see one,” he wrote. The result is white men hiring other white men and Wadhwa believes that “pattern recognition is a code name for sexism and racism…The sad reality is that Silicon Valley is a boys’ club that stacks the deck against women and certain minorities.”
Curious about the veracity of this claim, CisternYard reached out to Dr. Denise Gosnell, a local data scientist working for PokitDok. PokitDok facilitates the easy purchase of health care coverage through a transparent online marketplace. “I have personally not witnessed anyone dropping out due to gender bias,” Gosnell said, acknowledging that she is still relatively young in the career. She added, “The most discrimination I have seen in the tech field was the result of unintentional bias. That is, all of the communication bias I have observed in my short professional career can be explained from the perspective of unintentional biases.”
Gosnell is not alone in this observation. A national survey from 2008 by the WGBH Educational Foundation asked college-bound teens to describe how fitting a career in computer science would be for someone like them. 67 percent of boys answered “very good” or “good,” compared to only 26 percent of girls. The language surrounding these opportunities can have a serious impact on the unintentional biases formed by both men and women. Mackey described women’s tendencies to only apply if they fit every single requirement listed in the position description, whereas equally or lesser qualified men “will just go for it and apply.” Other studies have found that dominant language, describing tech jobs as competitive, aggressive, driver’s-seat positions, appealed to boys. Girls resonated more with the jobs when they were described as ways to help communities and make inroads into the healthcare and environmental fields. Whether the root problem is a pipeline or a trapdoor, the mentality surrounding tech jobs is clearly not helping. Mackey stated that her female peers’ first reaction when hearing that she studies computer tech is surprise. “They say ‘What? You’re really a CompSci major?’” she laughed. “I don’t fit the stereotype.” How do the boys react? “Sometimes they’re indifferent,” Mackey said, “and sometimes there’s the misconception that the girl is not as experienced or smart.”
The advantage to tech companies that hire women is clear. The nonprofit organization Catalyst recently found that companies with the highest percentage of women on the board outperformed those with the least, besting them in returns on invested capital by 66 percent. Women are more likely to perform well in groups and “projects which find common ground across multiple viewpoints,” are recipes for success,” Gosnell said. Mackey, who has completed tech internships in addition to her work with the WIC club, agrees that in general women excel in communication and interpersonal skills. “Women are more personable and better at communicating with others,” she said. “They’re better at getting big picture, which is why a lot of companies are looking for women to be project managers.” But what do women get out of the deal? What incentive do women have to go into a field that seems to be burdened with residual sexism? The field is “always going to be changing,” Mackey said. “I’m not going to be doing the same thing my whole life. One year it’s mobile apps, next year it’s systems in cars, it’s expanding.” She expressed particular excitement about a new open source software called Sugar Labs, which can fit on a flash drive and travel to every corner of the world. “It has all these different activities on it,” Mackey explained, “and we’re building one to teach girls about coding. We’re doing dress-up doll games through code to show they can do this too! Girls can code!” This exciting evolution yields personal fulfillment as well as practical benefits. “A lot of companies are very fluid; if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing they’re pretty willing to let you move into a different area,” Mackey said. “It’s a field with a lot of flexibility. In terms of hours, it’s much more supportive if you want a family or to move around a lot.” The motivation to go into tech and computing is growing and many programs have stepped up locally to support the entry of women into the Silicon Harbor boom. At Trident Technical College, a chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals meets to review resumés, form networks and “bridge the gap between education and occupation,” founder Tom Brady said. The Iron Yard Charleston offers intensive 12-week coding classes and two scholarships for women. Now beginning its second year, over half of their students are women. PokitDok, the local employer of Gosnell, supports yet another group called Charleston PyLadies, which teaches the general-use programming language Python. Charleston Women in Tech is one of the largest local groups, drawing about 300 members to panels, workshops and service events sponsored by BoomTown, Google and other major corporations. The annual Carolinas Women in Computing conference, held in February, showcases the Lowcountry’s opportunities for women to visitors from all over the Southeast. College of Charleston student Joy Nettles attended this year and was excited to “see women bringing technology to other aspects of life.” The College has not been immune to the local climate. Three years ago, the computer science major was only 10 percent women. Today, it is 25 percent and growing.
Aside from taking advantage of these opportunities to network and refine skills, what else can women and girls in Charleston do to improve their prospects in the tech and computing industry? “You have to apply to whatever you can,” advises Mackey. “Be more confident in your skills and make as many connections as you can before you graduate.” Gosnell echoes the need for connectivity, stating that “providing advice and technical knowledge to my teams and any technical person is one of the most important contributions I can make.” While support between women can mitigate sexism, it is only a single aspect of a comprehensive solution that addresses prejudice at its source. “The single greatest barrier for me was my imposter syndrome,” Gosnell said. Making the switch from mathematics to computer science at the doctoral level was a gutsy career move, and Gosnell experienced the trepidation that many women feel when they think they have failed to check every box. She persisted, however, and gained the skills she wanted. “I specifically came to work for Ted Tanner at PokitDok,” she explained, “because [he] firmly believes that ‘If you aren’t breaking something, you aren’t coding hard enough.’ That approach to creating new technology creates an environment which is conducive to learning and experimentation.” Sexism is not a woman’s problem, and women do not bear sole responsibility for fixing it. Men who have already obtained success in the field have an equal responsibility to objectively evaluate women’s qualifications and be sensitive to the male-centric language that has traditionally discouraged women in the field. Computer language remains in its relative infancy. Like written language before it, coding must be expanded from the realm of the educated elite in order to flourish and women can facilitate that.
Before hurrying off to her next class, Mackey shared a revealing anecdote. “I worked at a mobile app startup last summer,” she said, “and I was the only girl, doing coding for the founders. It was pretty weird. The boys would say ‘Let’s take a break, play Frisbee.’ And I always said ‘No, let’s get this done.’”
This article first appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Yard.