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How We Solve the Tech Industry's Gender Gap

The biggest reason for a lack of diversity in tech isn't discrimination in hiring or retention. It's the education pipeline.

Code.org

We all know the tech industry has a diversity problem. Far bleaker is the lack of diversity, specifically among the industry’s technical workforce.

There are many reasons why tech companies have a diversity problem. I don’t, by any means, discount that male-dominated organizations have a natural hiring bias, or that sexist “brogrammer” culture drives women away. Data clearly shows that tech companies do a worse job retaining (or promoting) female employees. The industry, as a whole, can clearly improve. But data also suggests the biggest reason for a lack of diversity in tech isn’t discrimination in hiring or retention. It’s the education pipeline.

The diversity problem is worse in schools

It seems impossible to address diversity in the tech workforce without addressing it earlier, in the education pipeline of potential employees.

In the U.S., women make up 26 percent of the software engineering workforce, while only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees are women. And Advanced Placement (AP) computer science in high school (which is directly correlated to participation in college) is the least diverse of all AP courses, with only 19 percent women. In 2013, not one female student took the AP computer science exam in Mississippi or in Montana.

Public education is changing

Over the past decades, countless organizations in the computer science community have worked on this problem. This work has recently hit an inflection point, with two major changes happening to computer science education in our public schools:

1) Computer science is expanding to more schools
When we launched Code.org last year, it was because 90 percent of U.S. schools did not teach computer science. If computer science is predominantly taught in suburban, affluent neighborhoods, it is less accessible to racially diverse populations. The 100 largest school districts in the U.S. represent 30 percent of the Hispanic and African-American population. Students in most of these ethnically diverse and urban districts simply can’t learn computer science at school — it isn’t offered.

But many groups are expanding access in urban school systems. Some of the largest efforts in this space are TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program’s grassroots push to bring volunteers as teachers, or equity-focused Exploring Computer Science and Code.org, which prepare existing educators to teach computer science. This year, Code.org’s high school courses enrolled students who are 34 percent female, and 60 percent African-American, Hispanic, or from other historically underrepresented groups. These numbers compare quite favorably to the demographics of AP computer science (20 percent female, 17 percent underrepresented groups).

2) Computer science is taught younger — in elementary and middle schools
To make computer science accessible to all, we must start early in public schools — where classrooms are split equally by gender, with students of all backgrounds. Younger students soak up knowledge before stereotypes suggest that it’s too difficult, or only for boys. For decades, young students have learned programming in after-school clubs, or at home. But this limits access to those who can afford it and have supportive parents.

In the past few years, beginner tools like Scratch, Tynker and our recently-launched Code Studio have reached tens of thousands of elementary and middle school classrooms. The gender diversity for Code Studio is already 40 percent female, across 1.5 million students in 40,000 classrooms!

The gender gap is changing, too

Last year, more than 100 organizations joined forces for the Hour of Code, a grassroots campaign to introduce students worldwide to one hour of computer science, to remove the veil of mystery and break the stereotype that coding is only for nerds. The collective effort recruited 40 million students to try an Hour of Code, exposing more girls to computer science than the entire history of the field.

gender gap chart

The tech industry and education nonprofits, working together

The Hour of Code grassroots campaign was supported by 40,000 teachers, and more than a hundred partners, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Teach for America, the College Board and many, many others, including celebrities, actors, musicians, athletes and world leaders, joining to recruit tens of millions of students to try computer science.

Campaigns like Microsoft’s We Speak Code and Google’s Made With Code have also raised awareness of this issue, and have recruited hundreds of thousands of students to participate. There are also nonprofits focusing exclusively on the diversity problem, such as NCWIT, the Anita Borg Institute, Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Iridescent, GirlDevelopIT and CodeNow.

All these efforts build on a foundation laid by the computer science community — organizations like the CSTA, NSF, ACM and thousands of computer science teachers. Individual educators have made incredible strides in the diversity of their computer science courses. For example, at UC Berkeley, introductory computer science has more women enrolled than men. We’re seeing an improvement in these numbers at all ages.

Thanks to the work of dozens of longtime advocates, this year, AP computer science saw a record increase in diversity (for the first time this decade). I predict that these numbers will improve steadily until female participation surpasses the 40 percent figure we see in Code.org’s courses for younger students, and reaches the 50 percent mark that UC Berkeley’s intro course has achieved.

It takes time, it takes cooperation, but by working together, change is possible. Over the next three months, an even larger coalition of partners is aiming to more than double the reach of the Hour of Code campaign, to 100 million students.

The faces of coding and computer science are increasingly female. The stereotype is breaking, and it’s time the world starts paying attention.

P.S.: If you want to help, ask your teacher to host an Hour of Code in the classroom.


Entrepreneur and investor Hadi Partovi started his career at Microsoft during the browser wars of the 1990s. He was group program manager for Internet Explorer. A Harvard University graduate, he was on the founding teams of a number of startups, including Tellme and iLike (founded with twin brother Ali Partovi). As an angel investor and startup adviser, his portfolio includes Facebook, Dropbox and Zappos. His most recent effort has been to try to improve STEM education via the nonprofit Code.org, which gets well-known tech figures involved to help get young people more inspired to code. Reach him @hadip.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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