As the burgeoning tech industry continues to do its part to create jobs in a struggling U.S. economy, a major portion of the population has been mostly left out of the tech boom. Despite playing an early role in tech's expansion in the 1990s, women are currently a noted minority in the industry -- an issue that must be addressed immediately.
Although technology jobs are predicted to grow faster than all other jobs in the next decade -- up to 22 percent, according to National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) -- the field has historically lagged behind when it comes to equal gender representation. Women aren't studying tech, and those already in the industry are leaving.
Although women held 57 percent of all positions in the U.S. workforce in 2008, they held a meager 25 percent of tech jobs -- down from 36 percent in 1991. That same year, women earned only 18 percent of all computer and IST bachelor's degrees -- a fall from 37 percent in 1985.
The "woman problem" in the tech industry is obvious, so how do we fix it? Too many experts addressing this issue assume it's a pipeline problem, meaning there aren't enough female tech professionals to begin with to mentor young women, and therefore substantially fewer women are pursuing tech education at a young age. Such experts believe increasing the number of women in computer science and other engineering educational programs is the answer.
Recruiting young women to the hard sciences is important, but there are other ways to address the female drought in tech that don't require waiting twenty years to see results. After all, the problem is only increasing, and rapidly -- a recent article in the New York Times highlighted how women currently in tech are leaving the industry in droves. We need to address this problem by encouraging women to get into tech now, not later. We also need to make sure that women stop leaving tech, immediately.
The mythical tech worker
One thing many women don't realize is that jobs in the technology industry are diverse and flexible, and that you do not need to study computer software in order to succeed in the tech industry.
Too many people think women aren't pursuing jobs in tech because they aren't first pursuing the education "needed" to succeed in the field. The fact is, many positions in the technology industry can be learned on the job or at home, rather than through a formal education program. In fact, some of the industry's best coders and hackers do not have formal tech education at all.
Employers need to understand this and begin considering job candidates who may not have exactly the training the job requires, but who are sharp and willing to learn and advance their skills. Women need to understand this, and be more confident about pursuing roles that involve technical skills, and about their ability to pick up tech lingo and capabilities.
Re-inventing tech education
Employers need to clarify to women -- in their job descriptions and recruiting process -- that the tech industry is not all about formal tech education. There are a number of ways workers can build their skills now, without pursuing a four-year degree. Government grants are available to help those who want to gain tech training, but few know they exist. Women can also pursue opportunities to self-educate as a way to start building their credentials. Codecademy and W3Schools are both options women can pursue now to start on the path to a tech career.
Although women can take a number of steps to start to build their skills without formal training, it's up to tech employers primarily to demystify this industry and be willing to teach new hires skills they need on the job.
When positions do open up at tech companies, hiring managers are often looking to hire the first qualified candidate who comes their way -- and rightfully so. But companies in the STEM fields should make an active and aggressive effort to find and recruit female employees.
A good philosophy for hiring is to focus on locating intelligent people with the ability to effectively execute tasks. Since talent is scarce, it makes sense to increase your pool of candidates to include those you may not have considered before. Many men prefer to work in environments that include women anyway, and some studies show teams with gender diversity are in fact more successful.
Recruiting professionals requires digging deep into your networks to spread the word about open positions. Consider sending job descriptions out over women-focused tech email lists. Look to provide training for women who may need additional skills, and offer flexible hours for those who require childcare services. Fine-tune your interview process to ensure fairness for female candidates. Creating a more woman-friendly recruiting process requires tweaking, but the benefits diversity brings to your workplace will be worth the effort.
As previously noted, women are leaving tech fields in droves -- 56 percent of women in tech leave at the "mid-level" point in their careers, which is double the quitting rate for men, according to NCWIT. This also robs the industry of strong female leadership and role models. NCWIT says reducing female attrition for only one quarter would add 220,000 workers to the STEM talent pool.
There are a variety of ways tech companies can work to retain women. Encourage junior female employees to pursue opportunities to develop their skills and become more vested in the industry. Or consider rotating assignments so you can ensure women are tackling work that is substantial and challenging. Empower women to be featured at corporate events as speakers or panelists. Perhaps most importantly, make sure to offer highly flexible work schedules with the option for employees to work remotely. This helps those who may have families tremendously, and will result in dedication and motivation from your employees. It is also important to encourage women in management positions to remain connected to their job after giving birth, even just partially. They should retain certain responsibilities that can be fulfilled remotely.
Remember, retention efforts should be made constantly, so incorporate these practices into the company culture.
The tech industry needs female talent, and cannot afford to miss out on this segment of the population. Why wait to solve this problem? Enough talking about only long-term solutions, particularly when our country is failing in basic science education anyway. Combating the gender gap in tech requires a combination of factors-- like the ones addressed in this blog post -- to get women started in this industry. The added talent and increased diversity will have positive effects on our companies, economy and society overall.
By Michal Tsur
Dr. Michal Tsur (@michts) is co-founder and president of Kaltura, a leading tech company that has created the world's first open source video platform, transforming the way people work, learn and entertain with video.