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How Schools and Companies Can Close Tech's Gender Gap

(Bloomberg View) -- In the weeks since the now-infamous Google memo first stirred global controversy, too little light has been shed on the underlying issue -- the large and undeniable gender gap in computer science, engineering and the technology business in general.

Let's begin with the proposition that this gap is a bad thing. At least three times as many men as women work as computer scientists in the U.S. That suggests an enormous supply of ideas, ingenuity and creativity is going to waste. And the U.S. is already short more than half a million computer-science graduates -- a deficit that will only worsen as the industry expands.

Why do so few women work in tech? It isn't that they can't do math or are biologically unsuited to the tasks. It's that women -- including those who excel at math -- haven't been shown in a consistent and forthright way why they should want the jobs. This can change.

In the 1980s, women made up a little under 40 percent of computer-science graduates. Since then, the gender gap has grown: Currently, less than 20 percent of computer-science graduates are women. In the earliest days of programming, during World War II, building computers was deemed a macho thing, and programming was thought to be for typists. Later, when personal computers began to appear in homes and offices, they were promoted as a pastime -- for boys. ("WarGames" or "Tron," anyone?) Contemporary bro culture has done nothing to attack this bias.

Here's the good news. When bias is seen for what it is, it can start to be dispelled.

Consider, for example, the experience of Harvey Mudd College, an elite science and engineering school in Southern California, which has managed to boost the female share of computer-science majors to 50 percent in the past 15 years.

How? The school expanded the female faculty and made the curriculum more inviting to talented students with limited exposure to computer science. It assigned classes according to students' past programming experience -- to prevent long-time enthusiasts from intimidating novices. And it told students that STEM careers pay well. (The average starting salary for software engineers from Harvey Mudd is more than $100,000.)

Policies like these won't make everything right -- but, widely adopted, especially starting in middle school (when girls tend to be most enthusiastic about computer science), they can help to close the gap.

Technology companies can follow suit -- by recognizing, measuring and counteracting implicit and explicit bias, by genuinely welcoming female interviewees, and by closing the pay gap.

The technology-consulting company Accenture, aiming to achieve a 50-50 male-female workforce by 2025, has, in India, created a women-only career track for technical architects and, in the U.S., established a rule that new parents -- fathers and mothers alike -- not travel for work for the first year, to get rid of the "mommy track." Salesforce monitors its payroll and adjusts salaries to close the gender gap. (Bloomberg LP has adopted similar approaches, increasing the number of women in engineering by 60 percent over the past three years, albeit from a low base.)

The Google memo perpetuated several misconceptions. Perhaps most damaging was the suggestion that efforts to attract women to jobs in computing are bound to fail and have already gone too far -- that the gender gap is intractable and should even be allowed to widen. In this, it couldn't have been more wrong. 

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