by Sharon Florentine

Battling gender bias in IT

Nov 03, 2016
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

You canu2019t aspire to be what you canu2019t see. To get more women into IT careers, girls and young women will need role models, mentors and public examples of success.

battling gender bias
Credit: Thinkstock

Kate Flathers was having a bad day. Between meetings, phone calls and projects going off the rails, the last thing she wanted to do was a candidate interview. So her first thought when she glanced at the résumé and cover letter that crossed her desk was, “Whew — I’m glad I don’t have to get involved in this one.”

In her role as director of product development at DrugDev, a provider of a clinical trials operations platform, Flathers was pulled into the interviewing process only after the first few rounds, when things were going well and a candidate had passed a number of initial screenings. And the candidate she was looking at certainly didn’t fit the usual profile of a software developer: A woman in her 40s who was making a late-stage career change.

She was ready to dismiss the candidate but then realized what she was doing. “Let that sink in for a second,” she recalls. “I’m a 40-year-old woman. In software. Running development. Looking at another 40-year-old woman and instantly assuming she won’t be able to hack it. I had that thought, I caught that thought, I yelled at myself for thinking it, and then I took another look at her application.”

Even though she finds that story “horribly embarrassing,” Flathers says she tells it because “this is exactly the kind of thinking that’s so prevalent in IT: These unconscious biases exist, for everyone, because of what we see and don’t see.”

In the 2011 documentary film Miss Representation, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And what women and young girls aren’t seeing are strong, accomplished female role models in software development or other IT disciplines.

Where have all the women gone?

computer programming was once viewed as “women’s work.” Many of the people who programmed the first computers were women. As recently as 1983 and 1984, women represented 37 percent of computer science majors in undergraduate degree programs. But the numbers plunged with the introduction of the personal computer, which was marketed as a toy for boys.

That marketing message took hold. It emerges early, often unconsciously, as parents steer boys toward technology and girls away from it, according to new research from CompTIA, a nonprofit IT industry trade association.

The CompTIA study, which became the basis of an e-book and awareness campaign called Make Tech Her Story, was conducted between June and July 2016 and included quantitative and qualitative research into young girls’ and boys’ technology habits and perceptions of technology careers.

The results show that girls’ interest in IT jobs decreases by 30 percent after they enter high school, says Carolyn April, senior director for industry analysis at CompTIA.

“There are some obvious systemic issues here that the research shows, including that parents of boys are more aggressive in introducing technology to their child than parents of girls,” April says. “That starts a domino effect that’s compounded when they don’t see women in these roles growing up, and then they aren’t exposed to courses and curriculum around technology — it just snowballs.”

According to CompTIA, only 37 percent of the girls who participated in the survey said they know a family member or friend who works in IT. And girls who have taken a technology class are only slightly more likely than those who haven’t to consider a career in IT.

The good news is that among girls who have considered an IT career, 60 percent say they do know a family member or friend who works in the industry. But on the flip side, 69 percent of the girls surveyed said they haven’t considered an IT career because they don’t know what opportunities are available.

April says that this is where the stereotypes born of the 1980s marketing efforts come into play. The research shows that girls believe a job in tech means being isolated and sedentary in front of a computer screen for 40 hours a week. And even among those who’ve taken a technology class, less than half said they believe their skills would be right for an IT job.

“We really need more women who are in the industry, who are doing the work, to stand up and be visible and show the next generation that they have role models and people like them they can emulate,” April says.

Increasing exposure

another recent study backs up this assertion. Based on a survey of 1,100 members of Women in Technology International (WITI) that was conducted in April and May 2016, the Wanted: Women in STEM study, from 451 Research, WITI and Robert Half Technology, found that exposure to science and math in grade school helps girls make a stronger connection to technology and helps them develop the confidence to consider careers in science, technology, engineering or math (the so-called STEM fields). For example, 12 percent of the respondents said they took interest in a STEM field in grade school and 30 percent said they did so in high school, while only 21 percent said their interest began in college.

Moreover, 50 percent of the respondents said that their fathers worked in STEM fields while only 8 percent said their mothers did; only 4 percent said both of their parents worked in STEM, and 38 percent said neither parent worked in those fields. For those whose parents didn’t work in STEM fields, exposure to those disciplines in school or in the community was a crucial aspect of their decision to pursue careers in a science- or math-related field.

“One of the things we found is that education in the earliest years is critical,” April says. “If parents are aware of their tendencies [to steer girls away from technology], they can work to change it. They can introduce those options, talk about those careers.”

And at school, she says, “curriculum hasn’t evolved past very basic concepts, and digital natives aren’t being helped to understand the varying ways an IT career can fit in with their other skills.”

Even for women who know early on that a STEM career is right for them, the initial required coursework can be dry and tedious, says Diane Wood, co-founder and chief architect at AtScale, a developer of Hadoop solutions.

“I always loved math, problem solving, logic puzzles, so it was a natural progression for me and it was easy and fun for me,” Wood says. “That said, at UCLA in the 1980s, I remember sitting in huge lecture halls, with the other few women clustered together in the back, thinking how dry and boring the classes were. For me, I knew I had to power through, but it’s easy to see how this could be a major turn-off if you aren’t sure that’s where your passion and your interests lie.”

After college, Wood held a variety of positions at technology companies in areas like engineering, product evangelism, product management and marketing, and software optimization. She says her varied experience and interests have contributed to her success, but she knows firsthand how demoralizing the challenges and the dearth of female role models in IT can be.

“I’ve always taken it as a given that I’d face challenges and that I’d be treated differently because I’m a woman,” Wood says, but adds that there are other challenges for young people considering tech careers beyond the gender issues. “A friend’s daughter is in high school and is currently looking at career options, and she’s running into the perception that if you want to work in tech, you have to focus on one thing, instead of applying broad experience and interests.”

DrugDev’s Flathers agrees that there’s a perception of technology as a hyper-focused “cult” of skills and associated knowledge.

“Ten years ago in tech, you had to know everything from the hard-core, back-end technology stuff to the front-end, design-oriented aspects and excel at every aspect,” she says. “But now, we’re seeing a need for targeted skills and experience, much more like a trade. Wouldn’t it make more sense to teach technology, coding, software as a basic skill like writing or math? Teach everyone the basics, and then they can decide whether or not to pursue that further.”

A job, not a lifestyle

there’s a societal perception that technology is a “lifestyle” and not just a job. And that mindset extends all the way into the corporate world and even the C-suite, says Flathers, who argues that the stereotype isn’t accurate and cites herself as proof. While she has a broad and diverse background in STEM fields, she doesn’t write code in her free time and she isn’t into gaming or other aspects of “programming culture.”

Nonetheless, the stereotype persists, and it can hurt women pursuing IT careers. “There’s a competitiveness about whether or not you have the chops, and if you’re not meeting all the criteria of the stereotype, then it’s perceived that you can’t make it,” Flathers says. “I’ve worked in software my entire career, and I have a lot of different experiences and knowledge, but I’m not going toe-to-toe with you on some miniscule aspect of a design pattern. But that’s what happens when you get into the corporate world, and women have to work twice as hard to prove themselves.”

Enabling women to succeed in IT means combating those innate beliefs and breaking the stereotype of what an IT pro looks like. While it’s important to start working on that as early as possible in the education system, Bonnie Crater, CEO of marketing analytics firm Full Circle Insights, says implementing workplace requirements like the Rooney Rule can help to make an immediate difference.

The Rooney Rule is a National Football League directive to increase the number of black coaches; it requires teams to interview minority candidates for every open head coaching position and senior operations job.

“This actually worked,” Crater says. “The NFL went from something like six percent to 22 percent representation over a few short years. These coaches were quite talented; they are quite successful. The problem wasn’t that there weren’t any talented black coaches, the problem was access.

Diversity at the top level breeds diversity all the way down. Having women in leadership roles and in senior positions means they’ll hire even more talented women.”

Hiring strategies

employers can also try to discard the notion that IT professionals need bachelor’s degrees in computer science in order to succeed. Instead, they can reach out to talented women coming out of coding boot camps, recruit self-taught programmers who might be working in another field, or set up internship programs to show girls and women what it’s like to work in the field, says Stephanie Weagle, senior director of marketing at Corero Network Security.

“There’s a huge opportunity right now, especially in the cybersecurity area, for women. Boot camps, coding challenges, hackathons and professional networking groups all need to get involved in helping tackle this problem,” Weagle says. “Companies should try working with high schools and universities to make girls and women aware of the incredible opportunities in security.”

Programs designed to help close the skills gap include an initiative in which Women in Technology (WIT) is patnering with Cybrary, a cybersecurity-focused MOOC platform, to offer cybersecurity training to women. Such efforts will also help address the under-representation of women in the industry, but there’s still the question of how to retain women in IT once they’re involved in the industry.

Beyond education

persistent sexual harassment is one of the main reasons women leave STEM careers. A 2015 study called “The Elephant in the Valley” shines a light on the issue. In a survey of more than 200 women with 10 or more years of professional experience, mostly in Silicon Valley, 60 percent of the respondents said that they have experienced unwanted sexual advances, and one in three said that they have felt their personal safety threatened because of work-related circumstances.

Education around these issues can go a long way toward rectifying them, says Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places at Instructure, a learning management platform provider. He cites a recent study that showed that rates of sexual harassment decline and reporting of incidents increases at organizations that offer “gender education” programs.

Not only that, he says, the rate of resolution of such incidents increases, as does the level of satisfaction with the resolution. In other words, once people understand why and how discrimination and harassment happens, they’re less likely to take part and more likely to speak up if they see or experience it, and are generally happier with how the issues are handled.

The bottom line is that it’s clear that the lack of women in technology is a problem that must be addressed, but there are ways to tackle the issue. Solutions include introducing computer and technology concepts in elementary schools, raising awareness of IT careers among high school students, reworking university computer science curricula and creating mentorship and internship programs. There are many options, and there’s more hope than ever that women will soon make up an equal share of professionals in the IT field.

The rest of the story

and the 40-year-old woman who applied for that engineering role at DrugDev? She’s thriving.

“It turns out, this woman is phenomenal,” Flathers says. “We hired her that day, and we paid her more than what she was asking because her salary wasn’t anywhere near what the market value of her skills was. It was one of the best decisions we’ve made.”