The 60 Minutes piece that aired on Sunday, March 3, 2019, “Closing the Gender Gap in the Tech Industry,” not only contained several pieces of misinformation, it also omitted the voices of the many organizations who are actively working on gender diversity in computing and achieving successes. Instead, one female tech employee’s opinions and one male entrepreneur’s perspective were held up as facts.
The piece began with the host describing the years of effort and millions in funding that have gone toward addressing the gender disparities in technology. Her lead into the piece showed their bias immediately: “We wondered why those efforts have failed, and found one group that may have a chance to finally crack the code.” While we acknowledge that “cracking the code” is cute, the rest of her statement is not. There is no evidence that the many national efforts have “failed.” In fact, there is evidence to the contrary.
Have Efforts to Diversify CS Failed?
No. More girls are taking the Computer Science Advanced Placement exam during high school than ever before — more than 38,000 in 2018. That is more than 10 times the number of girls who took this exam in 2000.
While there is still much room for growth in computing at the K-12 level, we are seeing progress. This progress is due to the years of hard work and sustained efforts of the National Science Foundation and other foundations’ funding work that is research-based and often grassroots. Additionally, relatively new national organizations, such as ECEP and CSforAll, are working on state requirements and support for CS education, which would enable all students to be exposed to rigorous computing, not just those who fit existing computing stereotypes.
As of 2017, there are now 22 states with standards in place for CS education at the K-12 level, and 11 more are working on it. Fourteen states require some computer science for graduation and in two-thirds of states, CS counts as a graduation requirement. Formal education matters; when all students are required to take courses in a certain discipline in high school, this exposure and experience levels the playing field later on in college and career.
The Number of Postsecondary Women and Girls Are Increasing
The first guest on the 60 Minutes piece stated, “Boys and men, the numbers are moving up. We are getting a lot more into computer science. But with women and girls, it’s going down.” This is simply untrue. There is actually an upward trend in the number of women completing computer and information sciences undergraduate degrees. The number of women completing a CIS undergraduate degree in 2017 (the most recent year data are available) increased by 37 percent compared to completion rates in 2000. Because more men are also completing these degrees, the percentage of women has remained about the same for the past several years, about 19 percent.
Why Aren’t We Seeing More Radical Progress Forward?
Changing societal attitudes and educational systems is hard work that takes time and collaboration by many parties, including K-12 schools, informal education, colleges, industry and policymakers. Eliminating the problem requires sustained reform of complex social systems. The broad influences of cultural stereotypes about gender and technology suggest to women and those who influence them that they are less likely than men to have talent or interest in creating computing technology. These stereotypes inform unconscious biases that lead girls, parents, counselors, and educators to overlook computing as a career for women. Merely having one coding experience is rarely enough to change these systems.
Code.org has done an excellent job bringing national attention to the need for K-12 students to have exposure to computer science through programming, bringing coding into schools, and packaging computing exercises in ways that are easily digestible in short periods of time and are accessible to noncomputer science teachers. The underlying issues that lead to underrepresentation of women, however, cannot be ignored. They include: cultural imagery depicting “male geniuses” and women who don’t know how to use technology and need to be rescued by men. These pervasive stereotypes have influenced societal expectations that girls and women are not technical/cannot be technical. Societal expectations shape the choices that people make as well as the messages kids get from adult influencers about what they should study or pursue.
The historical societal bias against women in any field being in high-earning, top leadership positions has permeated the rapid-growth computing profession. The societal prejudice against women of color holding positions of power in an influential, high-paying industry is even more inhibiting. All of these factors have created a spiral effect of bias, stereotype threat, lack of role models, and closed doors.
To address gender and racial inequity in tech is to address a larger societal issue. Consider women’s suffrage, it took 80 years just to get the country to accept White women voting, and another 45 to allow Black women (and men) to vote. Consider the shift of medicine as an all-male domain to a field moving toward majority female, it took over 130 years, and still there is occupational segregation, with men occupying the most high status, high paying roles.
What Can Be Done?
Girls and women encounter many reasons to not pursue computer science, so repeated exposures and longitudinal support is necessary right now for their persistence. Episodic approaches will continue to leave us with an imbalanced tech workforce. As Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani wrote, “Introducing girls to computer science earlier on (i.e., kindergarten) isn’t enough to close the gender gap in tech. Girls need support systems all along the pipeline, and tech companies need to do their part to root out harassment and discrimination.”
Rather than lament the lack of women in the candidate pool, or compete for the same women, companies looking to hire for technical positions can examine their recruiting and hiring practices to ensure they are attracting the many capable individuals out there that don’t fit our cultural stereotypes of who “does” computing. We have found that when companies attend to the institutional barriers and unconscious biases inherent in recruitment and hiring processes, they are in fact able to hire more women into technical positions.
We thank 60 Minutes piece for an ironic, but galvanizing, start to women’s history month. The piece demonstrated the work that still needs doing. We can’t fully address inequities in computing until we address inequities in society. So, NCWIT and other organizations working on equity and inclusion across different areas of society will keep working to break down harmful belief systems that reinforce the status quo. Between now and Women’s History Month 2020, let’s create and celebrate successes rather than lament nonexistent failures.