Tech & Work

Wojcicki breaks down women in tech issues to pipeline, retention, and perception problems

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki gave a thorough assessment of the state of women in tech at the day two keynote at the 2015 Grace Hopper Women in Computing Celebration.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki at the Grace Hopper Women in Computer Celebration 2015

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

A few years ago, Susan Wojcicki's 10-year-old daughter told her she hates computers.

That's quite the declaration to make when you mother is the CEO of YouTube, the largest video sharing website in the world.

"I was in shock. She's been going to Google since she was born," Wojcicki told the crowd at the day two keynote of the Grace Hopper Women in Computer Celebration 2015.

All of a sudden, this issue of getting girls interested in technology—something Wojcicki said she's been so passionate about in her work life—manifested itself in the form of her disgruntled daughter.

Wojcicki asked her why she didn't like computers.

The answer went something like this—her brother had "conquered" their one home computer. Also, it's lame.

For anyone who might not be familiar with the issues surrounding the lack of women in computing, Wojcicki delivered an incredibly thorough run-through of what's going on, why it matters, and what can be done.

The White House projects there will be more than a million open jobs in tech by 2020, and that's to say nothing of how jobs will change to incorporate technology in the future. With only 26% of tech jobs held by women, Wojcicki said the economic implications for the US are serious. And what's more, women are losing the chance to influence the largest economic and social shift of this century.

"[This] shouldn't be a wake up call, it should be a Sputnik moment," she said.

So, where to start? Wojcicki said it's a pipeline and retention problem. She cited a previous Grace Hopper talk that outlined three major perception problems that lead to a situation where women earn more than half of all bachelor's degrees, but fewer than 28% of computer science degrees:

  • Computer science is boring.
  • Girls think they wouldn't be good at it.
  • They think it's insular and anti-social.

Wojcicki ran these three idea by her daughter who confirmed them.

As far as being boring, Wojcicki said, it may look like that if you're on the outside watching someone else work on a computer. You women need as many chances as possible to get their hands on tech. As far as girls not being good, "That just makes me mad. Of course they'd be good at it. Some of the greatest programmers have been women," she said. And as favor as not wanting to hang out with the computer geeks, Wojcicki talked about busting stereotypes and giving girls exposure to events like Grace Hopper that show anyone can be an engineer.

YouTube will be showing in advance, Code Girl, a documentary from Lesley Chilcott, producer of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman, for free, as well as doing more to encourage positive portrayals of women in tech.

She said all these ideas can be easy for girls to internalize. And after a career in tech, she's learned something important. "Men have no special skills that enable them to run technology companies. There are just way more of them," she said.

One way to fix the pipeline is through making computer science education mandatory in schools. Right now, only 10% of schools in the US offer computer science. And they're usually the schools with money.

"We risk making gender, race, class disparity worse as jobs flow to those with computer degrees," Wojcicki said.

But even if the perception problem improves and more girls get interested in pursuing careers in tech, there's still a huge cultural issue to solve.

"Being in it for the long term is more important than a short and fiery stint in technology." Susan Wojcicki
Women in STEM are 45% more likely to leave the industry than their male counterparts. It's a culture that praises pounding a Red Bull, working all night, and embracing long hours.

"It creates a culture that intimidates people who want a normal life and punishes people who have commitments at home, whether male or female," she said.

While there are times when long hours are appropriate and necessary, Wojcicki said, working like that isn't a sustainable solution. She cited research from Harvard Business Review which found that employees who took regular breaks had a 30% higher level of focus and reported higher loyalty to their employer.

"Being in it for the long term is more important than a short and fiery stint in technology," Wojcicki said.

Taking breaks includes things like paid family leave.

When Google extended its maternity from 12 to 18 weeks, they saw the number of new moms who quit drop by 50%. The US is the only country in the world aside from Papua New Guinea that doesn't offer maternity leave. That means 88% of American women do not get any paid maternity leave, and about a quarter go back to work 10 days after giving birth.

Recently, companies like Netflix, Adobe, and Microsoft have extended their parental leave policies, signalling that some of the bigger players are becoming aware that it's a factor in retention.

In any case, Wojcicki's daughter feels a lot better about computers these days. Her mom eventually put her in an all-girls computer camp and she started doing things like designing a watch that could get email, messages etc., which actually preceded the recent smartwatch trend.

"We have to make it our personal responsibility to show the next generation and current women that they belong in computer science, and with it they can change the world," Wojcicki said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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