Despite a new focus on diversity, the tech industry's gender gap will continue to get worse over the next decade, unless tech companies start reaching out to school-age women, according to a report from Accenture and Girls Who Code, released Thursday.
If current workforce and education trends hold, women's share of the US computing workforce will drop from 24% to 22% by 2025, the report stated.
"At a time when there's unprecedented attention and momentum behind computer science education and this issue, the gender gap in technology is actually getting worse," said Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.
The current focus on universal access to computer science (CS) education—and a one-size-fits-all approach for boys and girls—is actually expanding the gap, rather than closing it, Saujani said.
The perception that computing is a male-dominated field is deeply ingrained, according to Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture. "Exposing girls in the midst of these stereotypes can actually deter them, further increasing the gender gap," Daugherty said. "Instead, more efforts must be made to tailor engagement with girls to suit the changing influences on their attitudes and preferences as they proceed through their education."
Another study from Gallup and Google released Wednesday echoed these findings. Some 40% of principals reported that their school offers CS classes with programming/coding, up from 25% a year ago. But girls are less likely than boys to report being told by parents or teachers that they would be good at CS, and are less likely than boys to be aware of CS learning opportunities outside of school. Boys are also nearly twice as likely as girls to see someone of their gender doing CS in the media, the study found.
There is hope: If tech companies, teachers, and parents intervene and encourage girls to pursue a computer science education, the number of women in computing could grow to an estimated 39% in the same timeframe, the report "Cracking the Gender Code" found—boosting women's cumulative earnings by $299 billion.
The report examined how the factors influencing girls' pursuit of computer science change throughout their education. Here's what they learned, and how tech leaders can help.
The high school trap
The STEM gender gap problem reaches its height in high school: Large numbers of girls who were engaged in computing in middle school lose interest in high school, and never return to the subject, due in part to a lack of friends taking CS courses, the "Cracking the Gender Code" report found.
Some 69% of the growth in the computing pipeline would come from changing the path of girls in middle school, according to the report. Seventy-four percent of women already in computing careers reported that they were first exposed to the field in middle school.
"We know it's a powerful time to get interested, and we need to dramatically expand our offerings for girls at that time," Saujani said.
Inspiring role models and teachers are hugely influential for girls in high school, Saujani said. "Tech companies are an excellent source of inspiring role models, and we'd love to see more tech companies partner with schools and nonprofit organizations like ours to bring their employees into classrooms as storytellers and mentors," she added.
Trish Barber, president-elect of Women in Technology, said that starting even in elementary school can be key. "We are very interested in exposing girls to STEM-related programs, so they can understand where the opportunities might be," Barber said. "They need encouragement, because it's not necessarily the easy path. There are a lot of hard skills and soft skills that go along with sticking with it."
Tips for tech leaders
Research released last month from CompTIA identified a lack of role models as one of the main factors discouraging girls from considering careers in tech. Only 37% of girls age 10-17 know of someone with an IT job, CompTIA found.
Awareness is also a problem: Of girls who have not considered an IT career, 69% reported that they did not know what opportunities were available to them, and 53% said additional information about career options would encourage them to consider an IT role.
"We found that while all these kids understand tech from a gadget and device perspective, they don't really understand what an IT career could be—their idea is that they could only work at a helpdesk, or in an IT department," said Carolyn April, senior director of industry research at CompTIA. "But a tech career could be a million different things in a million different industries."
"Once girls learn what is available, their interest is just as piqued as the boys," April said.
Tech leaders can play a large role in sparking and sustaining female students' interest in computing careers, April said. They can start by reaching out to local schools, Girl Scout troops, or other groups for girls in the community, and asking if they can come talk about their career.
April also encourages women already in the industry to become mentors. "Girls who have mentors and are introduced to a particular career tend to have more interest in pursuing that type of career themselves," April said.
Many tech companies have approached Women in Technology asking how to get involved, and to familiarize young women with their brand for when they look for jobs down the line, Barber said. Showing girls concrete examples of careers across tech, and also letting them know there will be new careers we can't yet imagine, is important as well, Barber added. She encourages companies to contact the organization to learn about more ways to get involved.
If the US doesn't produce more female STEM graduates, it risks falling behind other nations competitively, Daugherty said. Last year, the US had 500,000 open technology jobs, and only 40,000 CS graduates, the report stated.
"This is an urgent call to action," Daugherty said. "To meet this workforce challenge we need to draw from the full population, including women and underrepresented minorities. It's simply the right thing, and the smart thing, to do."
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
1. If current workforce and education trends stay the same, the number of women in the US computing workforce will drop from 24% to 22% by 2025, according to a new report from Accenture and Girls Who Code.
2. Many girls show interest in a computing career in middle school, but the interest tends to drop in high school, due in part to lack of mentors and lack of awareness of what a tech career entails.
3. Tech leaders can visit local schools and girls' groups to act as mentors and give talks on their career path, and the benefits of working in the tech industry.
- How "returnships" can get working mothers back into tech (TechRepublic)
- Women in tech: Mind the gender gap (ZDNet)
- 10 tools to help your company improve diversity (TechRepublic)
- Facebook and YouTube execs are among the world's most powerful women, says Forbes (ZDNet)
- Women in tech: Under-represented and paid less (TechRepublic)
Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.