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CXO

Why fixing tech's gender and racial gaps is more crucial than ever

Diversity helps the bottom line in business and in the boardroom; on a larger scale, it's essential to the future of tech and society. So why isn't the tech industry more representative of society?

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Kimberly Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code.
Image: Black Girls Code

As the technology industry gains more power and prominence in the world, the lack of diversity of its investors, founders, and staff has drawn increased criticism and scrutiny.

Despite more awareness and public commitments from corporate and government leadership than ever, a stark difference between the demographics of the United States and those of the nation's top tech companies remains.

As those companies release diversity reports, the data on diversity in tech speak for themselves. It's not a happy story. Despite efforts to improve upon the issue, women are falling behind in attaining degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). By some measures, gender and racial gaps in STEM fields actually grew in 2015, with the number of women entering the computing field going down. At some companies, layoffs can even lead to going backwards.

This isn't a new problem. The Department of Labor concluded way back in 1995 that making full use of the nation's human capital by eliminating artificial barriers to the advancement of women and minorities would be an essential investment. Two decades on, glass ceilings remain, despite the cracks made by women like Megan Smith, the first female US CTO.

As many other people have highlighted, however, this is not just a "pipeline problem," where universities aren't graduating more women or minorities with engineering or computer science degrees for startups to hire. Engineering degrees are not putting more black and Hispanic workers into tech jobs.

Women leave the technology industry because of the culture, not because "math is hard." The "brain drain" remains real. Gender bias, both implicit and explicit, remains an issue.

SEE: How venture capital must change: Gender equality as a business opportunity

This is about culture, not just classrooms and coding

What's happening here is more than a pipeline problem — and if you think it's just a pipeline problem, you haven't been paying attention to the women who have been speaking out, breaking down retention and perception issues.

But before women can be driven out of tech, they have to get there in the first place — and fewer and fewer of them earn degrees in these areas and enter these fields. Bias and stereotypes sideline girls early on in STEM education in elementary school and middle school, discouraging girls long before they reach college.

Many of these issues were front and center at a forum on women and technology at the Italian Embassy in DC I attended this February. You can watch a video of a panel discussion from the event, below.

The good news, said Donna Harris, the cofounder of DC-based startup incubator 1776, is that we're finally tracking the data. "You can't can't fix what you don't measure," she said.

One key insight she shared is that the difference between sponsorship and mentorship is significant in the startup world. Harris said that women tend to receive subject matter expertise from more senior members of their fields, but not help opening doors, which represents a big hurdle for executive and board level positions.

US CTO Megan Smith emphasized that coding is definitely a 21st century skill all of our kids need to develop. Get kindergartners playing with logic blocks, she suggested, and encourage third graders to play with cryptology by solving The Da Vinci Code.

SEE: How subscription service Bitsbox keeps kids coding with new monthly projects

"We need to find ways for kids that don't have helicopter parents to find opportunities," said Leah Gilliam, director of Mozilla's Hive NYC Learning Network.

That starts with making computer science an essential part of what every kid is learning, and providing venues for kids to learn outside of school.

How can we do better?

Smith suggested that a key challenge for educators will be to correct cultural, institutional, and unconscious biases. Cultural messages matter too, like a 15:1 ratio of boy programmers to girl programmers depicted on animated shows.

She also reminded the audience at the Italian Embassy that we need to know the history of women in technology. Several examples include: Ada Lovelace is credited as the first computer programmer; rear admiral Grace Hopper invented COBOL; and women broke Hitler's codes during World War II.

On this count, Smith and the White House are leading the nation towards more diverse workplaces by example. The United States Digital Service, the "startup" formed in the Office of Management and Budget to prevent IT failures like Healthcare.gov, has more women than men on staff. 18F, the new software development shop inside of the General Services Administration, is 41% female, 20% of whom are people of color, and welcomes staff who do not conform to a gender binary.

18F is engaging with diversity in unusual ways, too. Last year, it ran a Bechdel test for its code, evaluating how many of their software projects had at least one function written by a woman that called another function written by another woman developer. A majority failed.

The hundreds of young men and women that are showing up to "code for their country" are more representative of the public than the tech industry they've built careers within.

Why is this issue crucial?

As I've argued before, including women matters for the future of technology and society. Studies from MIT and Grant Thornton show that diversity helps the bottom line in business and in the boardroom. More diverse newsrooms produce better journalism about gender, race, and class. Dating apps made by women for women can change the architecture of participation as more relationships are formed online.

This adds up to a set of issues that matters to everyone who wants to see their countries compete in the 21st century, and provide women and minorities with equitable access to the industries of the future.

Fixing the gender gap won't be easy, but it's a goal worth rallying around in every walk of life. If we learn from the success of colleges like Harvey Mudd in increasing the percentage of computer science graduates, or why Etsy hired more women coders, and apply those lessons around the industries and communities, progress is possible.

Making the technology industry more representative of society matters more than ever. Understanding who is investing in and building apps, services, and platforms matters. Tech companies have become the public squares of today, where public expression is hosted on private platforms. The people who write the code and control the policies on these apps and services have considerable power as intermediaries in our Information Age.

That puts a premium upon the way that our institutions, new and old, educate, mentor, hire, and retain women and minorities. The ability of a nation to compete in a globalized world depends upon it being able to find and nurture the potential of all of its citizens, venerating the essential role of teachers in society.

Inspiring, nurturing, and empowering the Grace Hoppers, Margaret Hamiltons, and Anita Borgs already among us and those yet to come is worth it.

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About

Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.

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