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Towards More Women in Technology

05/06/2015 07:31 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016
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Any discussion supporting "women in technology" risks being construed as reverse-sexist, but statistics offer compelling justification for why it is vital to talk about it. Even though 57 % of the American professional workforce has comprised women in 2013, in a ratio that in-fact skews the optimum 1:1 evolutionary ratio in favor of the ladies, women accounted for only 26 percent of the workforce in the area of technology and computers. Is there an explanation for this logic-defying ratio? Are the two X chromosomes somehow inclined to steer its bearers away from a field that practically defines the world now?

The dearth of women in technology has long been attributed to the pipeline problem of fewer girls in the STEM area of education. Although at the K12 level, girls are taking high level mathematics and science courses at similar rates as their male classmates, the ratio continues to remain lopsided when it comes to computer science, as shown by a survey of the Advanced Placement Exams - only 19% of girls took the computer science exam in 2011.

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Dr. Rob Garcia, an educator and Mayor of the City of Long Beach, collates the reasons for fewer girls in computer science into the following key facts: lack of female role models (despite the world's very first programmer being a woman) and mentors; engrained societal gender stereotypes reinforced by friends, family and community; lack of confidence due to internal feelings of inadequacy (Impostor Syndrome), and differential teaching practices in the classroom. This situation is slowly changing with increasing awareness of the importance of encouraging girls to take up computer science both within families and in the social setup. For example, with the help of the Clinton Global Initiative America, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, through its Aspirations in Computing program, is working to add 10,000 more girls from kindergarten through graduate school, to the nation's technology talent pool.

Such awareness and initiatives are already showing benefits. In a first in more than a few decades, University of California, Berkeley saw more number of women than men (106 to 104) taking computer science in college in 2014. If such a trend is seen in other institutions as well (it is already seen in Stanford), and if all these students graduate successfully in four years, the dismal 12.9% female computer science graduates seen in 2012 could be boosted significantly.

Will the spike in female computer science graduates translate to more number of women in the tech industry? There are factors beyond education that cause the disturbing gender disparity. In a report titled "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology," Harvard Business Review reports that more than half of the number of women in science, engineering and technology leave the field and never come back. The report also lists five "antigens" that cause this drain -- marginalization by hostile macho culture; isolation in a male-dominated (bro-gramming?) environment; stalling -- the gendered glass-ceiling; the need for risk and reward mentality and family (child rearing) reasons.

The apparent family-versus-job tussle as the single most important reason for women leaving tech-industry is not supported by statistics -- the National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that although 56 percent of women with technical jobs leave their work midway through their careers, 31 percent go on to taking nontechnical jobs, which means that child-rearing is not necessarily the primary reason women move away.

Marginalization by hostile macho culture seems to be a widespread phenomenon in the tech industry. Vivek Wadhwa, American technology entrepreneur, found that 33 percent of female tech entrepreneurs faced "dismissive attitudes" from their colleagues and 15 percent said their abilities had been questioned. A recent research showed that 72% of U.S. women felt gender bias at work in their evaluations, and this is not merely subjective opinions or rants, it is supported by numbers -- nearly 88% of women in 28 tech companies received critical feedback (most of which involving the word "abrasive") against 59% of men (none of whom was called "abrasive").

Even after transcending the "culture fit" mismatch rampant in techdom, the male-dominated workplace could lead to isolation. Isolation is particularly severe up the ladder. According to the Kauffman Foundation, women account for only 10 percent of founders of "high-growth" firms. The challenges for women-owned firms include lack of mentors, their own view of success and failure, and a financing gap.

Pay disparity is another metaphorical elephant in the room that catalyzes the exodus of women from tech fields. A recent study from Glassdoor shows that women make less and are less satisfied with their jobs. Narrow the Gapp reports that women who work in computer and mathematical occupations make 84 cents to every dollar a man earns for the same job. The numbers are controversial, but research shows that even after adjusting for education, work hours etc., the pay gap is still an un-ignorable 14%.

Interestingly, the downward trend of women participation in technology is worst in the United States. In tech-intensive countries such as China and India, the situation is better, if not ideal. As early as 2004, India surpassed the United States in women's IT workforce participation at 35%, and the figure continues to grow. That said, pay disparity continues to be plague the Indian IT industry, but given that many of the tech companies in India are of American origin, where does the problem lie? More Chinese tech companies have women in management positions than the Silicon Valley. This trend provides much food for thought and research and possibly interesting pointers on gender diversity vis-a-vis cultural and economic environments.

Any change to betterment is slow and takes a lot of effort and initiative. Like the three waves of the feminist movement that were pivotal in the empowerment of women in society, it takes concerted and consistent effort by women, families, society, industry and academia to bring about management course corrections to eliminate and not just narrow the gender gap in technology. The foundation must be laid early on. Women's organizations and universities already have outreach programs to encourage girls to take up computers in education. With such programs, coupled with the awareness that 2020 would see 1.4 million new jobs in technology, it is but natural for women to partake of their fair share of the pie. The change, though gradual, is palpable, and it will involve attitude, intention and effort by society as a whole to catalyze the process.

Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip blogger who is just as passionately opinionated about the juxtaposition of technology, parenting, and education.