Women in technology fight to bridge the gender gap

From left, Kristen Hazard, Gabi Ojile of Suntoucher Software and Missy Reitner-Cameron of (iii) Design.
From left, Kristen Hazard, Gabi Ojile of Suntoucher Software and Missy Reitner-Cameron of (iii) Design.

The battle to bridge the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

Though women are making strides in the biosciences, social sciences, physical sciences and such engineering fields as environmental and biomedical, a chasm exists when it comes to the male-dominated fields of computer science and software engineering. And that will have a profound effect on the future for women and the tech industry as a whole, according to Judy Mahan, director of Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Small Business Development Center and the CIE’s incubator program.

In the U.S., women held 57 percent of professional occupations in the 2015 workforce, but only 25 percent of professional computing occupations. Yet the number of computer-related jobs is only increasing.

To Mahan, digital technology represents America’s fourth industrial revolution, and if women aren’t a part of it, they will “miss out on a major industry change, which is setting new standards in our society.”

“Men and women of power and influence need to get proactively engaged in creating opportunity in the tech industry for our next generation of women,” Mahan said. “Women will not have an equal voice in shaping our future if they do not have an equal voice in the tech industry.”

Furthermore, if tech companies want to attract and retain women, they must change workplace culture.

Research shows about 56 percent of women technologists drop out by mid-career. That’s twice the rate of men, said Susan Davis-Ali, senior director of organizational transformation programs for the Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology in Palo Alto.

There’s something going on inside these companies that isn’t conducive to women, she said. It’s also hurting their bottom line, she noted, because “gender diversity drives innovation.”

According to Davis-Ali, a study of 1,000 women in engineering found that the key reasons they leave their tech jobs are working conditions, lack of advancement, low salary, long hours and issues related to work-life balance.

“The top reasons are really about the culture that was created by men, and it hasn’t become a culture that is super inclusive of women or underrepresented minorities,” Davis-Ali said.

Some tech fields have drawn women

Women have embraced some STEM areas, said Ignatios Vakalis, department chair and professor in Cal Poly’s computer science department. The question, he said, is why more of them do not enter computer science and software engineering.

One key reason, he believes, is that there aren’t any true computer science courses offered in California high schools, where an educator credentialed to teach such a course “can empower the student or teach the student about the creativity of the computing fields.”

What’s known as Advanced Placement computer science in high school is a course in Java programming, which “cannot convey the creativity in applications of the field,” he said. “Thus, lots of students of both genders miss an opportunity to be educated on what computing can do for society and what its impact will be,” he added.

Another reason is the stereotype of the computer scientist, portrayed as a highly intelligent but socially awkward male programmer in popular culture and

Hollywood movies. That can be a factor for students in younger grades, Vakalis said, unless parents or other mentors show them what the field is really about.

“A lot of the young women we have here have parents who are also involved in the computing field,” he said. “They understand what it is and what it is not.”

For its part, the university’s computer science department has made increasing women’s participation in computing one of its strategic priorities, Vakalis said. When it began its initiative in 2010, women made up about 8 to 9 percent of incoming students. Now they represent close to 25 to 26 percent.

The Cal Poly computer science department has also developed its first quarter computing class around applications in computing, a course that is done in a group work setting. First-year and female students have reported that group work, unlike working alone, is more empowering and “provides a validation of your knowledge,’’ he said. In addition, there is a women in computing club, and all incoming women are paired with or are mentored by upper-division female students and provided mentorship with the department’s industry advisory board.

“Students get peer-to-peer and also student-to-professional advice, so they can see the present and they can see the future.”

The changes are paying off. Female students, Vakalis said, are in high demand, receiving multiple job offers with six-figure salaries before graduation.

“The demand for young women graduates far exceeds the supply,” he said.

Mike Manchak, president and chief executive officer of San Luis Obispo County’s Economic Vitality Corp., said a “thriving and diverse economy must include private companies that consciously and actively retain, attract and promote women in leadership and all positions including technology, science and engineering — the STEM fields.”

The EVC has a track record of helping women entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. One of the EVC’s partner organizations for helping women find startup capital and training is Women’s Economic Ventures.

“The job market for technology employees in recent years, with the strong economy, has created an extraordinary demand for women computer programmers in particular, and we’re seeing them rise to the top of the pay scale, which is very encouraging.”

Manchak is hopeful that this may be the impetus to attract more young women into the field and “create a better balance of women in technology in the long run.”

Women still in minority

While those who graduate reap the rewards, there’s room for more women in a variety of science, engineering, computing and other technical fields.

The university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on-campus incubator program, or Hatchery, for student startups has only 19 women out of 114 students.

The incubator is seeing more and more women every year, said Lori Jordan, who runs the Hatchery. That’s due in large part to outreach through various clubs on campus and word of mouth. Former participants in the summer HotHouse program also speak with students, Jordan said.

“They see someone who’s a woman, who is three to five years down the road, and they think, ‘This could be me,’ ” she said. “It helps to shape their view of what it means to be a woman entrepreneur.”

The ability to get a sponsor is important to the overall success of the enterprise, Jordan added.

“ I would say a lot of the women I’m meeting now in college or out of college who are looking to start their own business, or who are in a high executive role in a small startup, I see more confidence because they have access to resources,” she said. “It’s not just in SLO, but across the country, that women are at the table and, like in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In,’ are supporting these movements.”

Barriers women face

Even so, there are challenges in attracting and retaining women.

A recent documentary film, “CODE: DeBugging the Gender Gap,” tackles the issue of the lack of gender and ethnic diversity in computer fields. In it, director/producer Robin Hauser Reynolds exposes the reasons behind why women shy away from tech, including the feeling of not fitting into the culture.

According to the National Center for Women in Technology, research has shown that there are five significant barriers women in technical professions face: isolation or a lack of mentors and networks, unconscious biases in performance evaluation and promotion processes, problematic supervisory relationships, a lack of support for competing life responsibilities, and subtle unconscious biases in everyday interactions.

“This last one, subtle biases in everyday interactions, can seem small when it’s an isolated instance, but they really add up over time to produce an unwelcoming environment that causes people to leave,” said Adriane Bradberry, a spokeswoman for the center.

Joshua Erdman, president of Softec, a local nonprofit trade group promoting business growth in the technology sector, said “there will be people stuck in their ways, who believe that women do not belong in programming or whatever field it is.”

But he’s encouraged that more women are participating in Softec’s Tech Brews and other events, such as the Women in Tech lunch, Women in Tech breakfast and the Women in Tech annual dinner.

He believes the existing momentum will propel women forward.

“My biggest concern is that people are seeing this as sort of an individual or specific activity that’s happening. It’s bigger than a movement. It’s a participation in history.”

Anita Borg Institute

Based: Palo Alto

Goals: Nonprofit organization that promotes recruiting, hiring and advancement of women in the tech industry.

Founded by: Anita Borg, a computer scientist who worked to help women break through the “silicon ceiling.”

More info:

Information about women in technology and STEM careers

Softec San Luis Obispo County:


Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship:

Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology:

National Center for Women and Information Technology:

National Girls Collaborative Project:

National Math and Science Initiative:


WISH, Women Involved in Software & Hardware: or

By the numbers

Women made up:

  • 28 percent of all workers in science and engineering occupations in 2010, up from 23 percent in 1993.
  • 13 percent of all engineers in 2010, up from 9 percent in 1993.

Source: 2014 National Science Foundation report

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