Everyone has a story of what motivated them to spark change.
For me, it came a few years ago when I was asked to speak to the CoderGirls camp at a local high school. It wasn’t for a prepared speech or a presentation, just an opportunity for girls interested in tech careers to talk with women in the profession. I brought along my coworker Jen, and we were both eager to share our stories about how we got into tech and the different paths we took to get to where we are now.
We expected the girls, all new to high school, to ask questions with the same eager excitement we shared when we started our careers. We expected to talk about what to do to get into the best schools, to find the best job. Instead, one resounding theme broke through:
“Is this industry safe for women?”
We assured them that we had never felt unsafe in our careers and that, while there are issues, there are many people actively working to resolve them. But even as we addressed their concerns, their question stuck with me.
I have a daughter and a niece, both just a couple years younger than the girls at the camp. I worried they might feel the same way, that those fears might dissuade them from pursuing their goals. But when I spoke to them that evening about my conversations with the high school girls, I found that those issues were just background noise compared to their passion for technology. They were aware of the problems, but did not feel limited by that knowledge.
The difference between them and the CoderGirls camp? Well, me.
I was able to affect their perception simply by being who I am.
So what would happen if I tried?
That’s just one short anecdote that shows what many women are feeling about pursuing a career in tech. But it doesn’t paint the full picture. In looking at the statistics, many are surprised to find that it’s not just bad for women in tech - it’s getting worse.
- 20% of jobs in tech are held by a woman. In 1991, that number was 37%.
- 18% of Computer Science degrees are held by women. In 1984, that number was 31.1%.
- 41% of women in high tech quit their jobs. That’s compared to 17% of men and 20% of women in non-tech fields.
The picture gets even poorer when we look at tech leadership.
- 11% of executive positions in Silicon Valley are held by women.
- 5% of all leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women.
- 7% of partners at the top 100 VC firms are held by women.
Statistics via Smallbiztrends.com, Bureau of Labor, NPR, and Hewlett.
This is a systemic problem. As fewer women graduate with tech degrees and those that do leave the industry, churn rate increases and the percentage of women in tech continues to drop. Women feel increasingly isolated in their roles, with a lack of support or advancement opportunities to keep them committed to a career in tech. Women are paid less, promoted less, and more likely to deal with sexual harassment or discrimination than their male counterparts. And when 14-year old girls are asking whether they’ll be safe to pursue a career in tech, it’s clear that these toxic issues have seeped through multiple generations.
After my experience at the high school, I committed myself to making a difference. I joined several mentorship programs to work with young women at the undergrad level. I pioneered a shadowing program where women at the University of Florida could earn credits by shadowing at Infotech (my place of work) for a semester. I’m not saying I was the second coming of Susan B. Anthony, but I was feeling pretty great about my contributions to the cause.
And then I went to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference. At most technical conferences, you will see maybe 10-15 women amongst hundreds of attendees. I found myself surrounded by 18,000 women, all with similar goals and career interests.
I didn’t go to be inspired - I’d started my shadowing program, after all. But after listening to the keynote speaker and just a few other speeches, I realized how much more I could - should - be doing. Equally empowered and humbled, I left the conference with a new goal: to create the connection I felt among those 18,000 women in my own community.
Together with four other women in my community, I founded WATT - We Advance Tech Together. We believe women are best at inspiring other women, and our goal is to build a network that connects positive role models with kids, students, and young professionals at different stages of their tech career. We want to foster an interest in technology from an early age and provide a community of support to keep that interest strong.
The best thing about WATT? There’s nothing we’re doing that can’t be replicated in your own community. We encourage women everywhere to start similar organizations or join those that already exist. There are many actions your group can take that will support the cause:
- Attract people of all genders who are supportive of gender equality in the workplace
- Hold meetups, talks, and other events targeting women at different stages in their career in order to advise, be a sounding board, or just connect
- Hold community events targeting youth interested in technology
- Provide an environment where everyone is able to share their stories, safely
- Focus on supporting all tracks of a technical career, from testers & engineers to CEOs & entrepreneurs
It’s important to note that you don’t have to be a leader or a role model to make a difference. One of the biggest issues facing women in tech is isolation. Just by connecting with other women and lending your voice to the issues we face, you’re contributing to the foundation of support we hope to build.
The gender gap and wage gap didn’t show up overnight, and they won’t be fixed overnight. Let’s fight systemic discrimination with our own system of support and inspiration. To learn more about WATT, visit our Meetup page and attend our upcoming Meet and Greet at Info Tech, Inc.