When I started out in my undergraduate program, women made up about 50% of my freshman class in Computer Science. But by my senior year, that percentage had dropped to 10%. Bias was part of life – the look of concern when a student who didn’t know me got me for a group assignment, the jerk in one of those assignments who handed me the team notes and told me to type them up, a general recognition that my Computer Science classmates saw me as a girl first and a classmate second.
But for me it was also something of a badge of honor. I liked the surprised looks on people’s faces in class when they realized I could hold my own, the note of pride that my family and friends had when they told people I was a Computer Science major, and the look on the jerk’s face when I told him to type his own damn notes and handed them back to him. 😊
These kinds of biases persisted in my career after graduation. There were times when they were a disadvantage and there were times when being a woman made me stand out in the crowd and be noticed. I am pretty certain that my gender sometimes held me back from promotions and prevented me from being included in some social gatherings. But what I got I earned.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor says that 25 percent of computer and math occupations were held by women. This is much better than the 10% of my graduating class but we still have a long way to go. Lots of programs have been launched to improve this percentage. And many companies have started a focused push to hire more women in technology – making it a company-wide goal to increase women in technology and/or leadership. To get there, they often require that women be interviewed for all positions and/or require that women be included in interview panels.
One of my previous positions was for a leadership role. After I got the role and started in the position, one of my coworkers told me that 180 or more people had applied to the role. I was thrilled – 180 people and I got the job? But then he wondered out loud how many of the applicants had been women and told me that the company had a gender diversity goal for leadership. He didn’t say it, but the implication was clear – he was doubting my skills and wondering if it was the diversity goal that led to my being hired. He wasn’t the last person to imply this. Over my time with that company there were jokes, veiled comments, and open rumblings about the diversity goals. And every time a woman was hired the rumblings were there.
To comply with the rules, we needed to make sure that we interviewed female candidates for every role. If no qualified women applied to a position, we went to LinkedIn to find some and ask them to apply. Leadership said it wasn’t a pipeline problem – but how can it not be if we are graduating a smaller % of women than we are trying to hire?
I am personally torn – diversity goals absolutely increase female leadership and representation in companies. And this has huge benefits for a company – it increases diversity of thought, provides role models for other women, and leads to better company results and better products. But on the receiving end it feels icky. In the past when someone reached out to me about a job or asked me to speak at an event then I would assume it was because I was brilliant. Now there’s an underlying worry that I’m being asked because I’m a woman. And that’s not a great feeling.
But I do think I’m brilliant :-), so I’m going to continue feeling like I deserve that seat at the table regardless of my gender. And I’m going to do what I can to encourage more women to get into Computer Science so that the pipeline problem is solved and we don’t need company goals to get us there anymore.
There are many theories about why women don’t tend to stick with Computer Science. I’m no expert in the field, but I can share my thoughts and observations:
We like things to be useful
This is what some researchers at Carnegie Mellon categorized as ‘Computing for a Purpose’. Introductory computer science classes tend to focus on simple problems and coding exercises because the students are just getting started. And many people get into computer science through an attraction to gaming or tinkering, but that doesn’t work for everyone.
“The feminine take on technology looks right through the machine to its social function, while the masculine view is more likely to be focused on the machine itself. As a result, when technology is introduced as an end in itself, as in a programming class, for instance, young women are less likely to be interested than young men.”
This is one of the reasons that we started Datagami – we wanted to show how amazingly purposeful data can be and how careers in data can appeal to all genders and backgrounds.
The Geek Factor
A lot of us don’t identify with geek cultures and don’t think of ourselves as geeks. There was a time in my career where I thought it was cool to be considered a geek, but as the stereotype becomes stronger I identify less with the label. I binge watch Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley and love the shows, but I don’t see myself in any of the characters. In data, you can be a geek if you want to but most of us aren’t. It is mostly about using information to help people make decisions.
‘The confidence thing’. In my undergraduate program I often felt like the guys knew way more about computers than I did. And it was usually true. They could talk on and on and on about hardware, networking, gaming, and other aspects of Computer Science. And I often felt intimidated, clueless and fake in those conversations. But when it came to our course material and subjects that were new to them, I found that I often did better than my peers. And once I realized that, I got over feeling like an imposter. When my friends called me because their computers stopped working and gave me a hard time because I didn’t have a clue how to fix them, I would just laugh and say “I do software, not hardware” and move on. I still can’t fix a computer if it breaks, and I don’t care because that just doesn’t interest me.
Computer Science requires more hands-on work than some other majors and that means you have to put in more time and effort in school. My social crowd in college was almost always in majors that required less lab work. And while I was in the computer lab doing my homework, they were out at the bar or socializing. It was tough not to get jealous. But I was able to mix in some of those courses to my curriculum (I minored in Psychology when I got my master’s degree) and I found students in my classes to study with so it worked out. I didn’t major in Computer Science for the money, but I love the lifestyle that it has provided for me and don’t at all regret the extra hours now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How can we improve the pipeline to get young women into technology?
Great article Wendy!! This resonates with me so much and I am positive there are many other women in the industry who feel the same. I believe the industry is changing but just not fast enough.
How can 25% not be a pipeline problem (unless you want women to be 25% of your workforce, max)?! As my son would say, “Logic is in the corner, crying.”
As someone who has sidestepped into tech, I wish my college self had known how fascinating it could be. Thank you for being a trail blazer!