An algorithm that detects if a cancer is benign or malignant. A program that helps citizens figure out how to vote. An app that fights the stigma surrounding periods.
These are all ideas dreamed up and then rendered into code by teenage girls. All across the US, girls and women are coding solutions to problems big and small, local and global. And all across the US, initiatives are sprouting up to give girls the space and resources they need to grow in what would otherwise be a potentially unwelcoming field.
Collectively, these efforts are looking to reverse a persistent and worsening problem: gender inequality in the tech world.
Despite technology having flourished in the last 20 years, girls in the US are less likely to pursue STEM careers today than they were in 1990. The percentage of women in computing jobs has declined from 35% in 1990 to 26% in 2013.
It’s a disparity that has nothing to do with ability, and everything to do with a culture that discourages women from pursuing careers in science, especially if it involves coding.
The gender divide begins early and widens over time. In elementary school boys and girls are nudged and sorted toward particular interests, with boys given the province of math and science.
This divide is then reinforced by popular culture. The tech world is generally depicted as a place ruled by nerdy and unconventional guys, where women are excluded and viewed as anomalies.
Some argue that the problem snowballs because girls are unable to find role models whom they can emulate. Like all glass ceilings, the answer is more successful and visible women.
Then there’s the prevalence of sexism in the industry that repels many women from continuing their careers.
“A big thing in the tech world is imposter syndrome,” one female coder told me. “After you're hired, wondering if it was just to be the token woman.
“A male engineer can be average, but a female engineer has to be exceptional,” she said.
A Harvard Business Review study found that up to 50% of women working in science, engineering, or technology will eventually leave because of a hostile work environment.
There will be more than 1.4 million computer jobs in the US by 2020, and if current trends continue, the huge gender imbalance will remain.
Fortunately, a lot of great programs are addressing the industry’s undercurrent of sexism. While this shift should be driven by ethics alone, there is also an economic incentive. Tech companies with more women in management have a 34% higher return of investment that their peers. Now, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and many other tech giants are working to change their work cultures to make them less alienating to women.
Ultimately, these organizations are working to create a world where female coders are common enough to just be considered “coders.” Having to stipulate the gender of a coder — when it has no bearing on competence — is demeaning.
What should a girl or woman do if they’re considering this line of work?
“Follow your passion, don't get discouraged, and find a mentor that you can turn to for advice in both soft skills and technical skills,” said Rocio Delgado, platform engineering manager on the platform data team at GitHub. “Attend events and network with other women in the space; it's very rewarding to connect with people alike.”