Are Generation Z women tackling the tech gender gap?

Think Progress Team

Wednesday 15 November 2017

According to software engineer James Damore, women are less suited to careers in coding because of their “stronger interest in people” and “neuroticism”. In a memo he wrote to colleagues, Damore asserted that: “The distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes … these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership.”

Damore’s employer at the time, Google, begged to differ, and showed him the door. Yet his 10-page anti-equality missive reflects a tech industry that is divided: one side grappling with the issue of how to increase inclusivity in the workplace, the other railing against it. Google’s own inclusivity metrics highlight an awkward point: only 20 per cent of its tech workforce are women.

So is there something to Damore’s screed? Can the current, overwhelmingly male tech industry be explained by an underlying biological trait that means men have a predetermined set of cognitive abilities?

In the UK, only around 16 per cent of engineering and technology undergraduates are women. In the US, 35 per cent of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates are women. Buried in that statistic is the portion of all computer science or engineering degrees going to women between 2008 and 2015: just 18 per cent.

That’s despite women accounting for 60 per cent of the total number of US degrees in that time.

These figures alone might offer the very loosest justification for Damore’s claim. But Professor Dame Wendy Hall, a director of the Web Science Institute at University of Southampton, neatly debunks it. She told The Guardian that the variation in gender ratios of STEM students around the world means biological differences in ability don’t exist.

“I walk into a classroom in India and it’s more than 50 per cent girls, the same in Malaysia,” Hall said. “They are so passionate about coding. Lots of women love coding. There just aren’t these gender differences there.”

Turning the tide

While the current picture is one of men occupying the bulk of STEM roles, there are signs that the gender gap in the tech industry could be set to even out. Generation Z women – those born after about 1996 – are showing greater interest in IT and engineering careers than their millennial counterparts.

Among GCSE students in the UK, there’s very little gender difference in STEM subjects. Computers are no longer the preserve of young male gamers, as 1980s and 1990s marketing had it. A number of myths about women in STEM careers are being systematically exploded, which are painting a truer picture of the challenges women face and how to overcome them. These include women missing out on promotion because they leave work to have children (the promotion gap happens well before this), and that women aren’t interested in coding (they are – and they’re extremely capable).

In the US there’s been a promising upswing in the number of women studying STEM – and particularly computer science – degrees in the last few years. The University of California, Berkeley, almost doubled its female contingent of computer science students between 2009 and 2013, while at Harvey Mudd College, also in California, nearly half of its computer science graduates were women.

In 2015, women earned more than a third of computer science degrees at 16 colleges and universities in the US, significantly up on the 18 per cent achieving that feat in the seven years prior to that.

Building on level foundations

So the cracks in the pipeline are being fixed. How is the flow of women into tech careers being improved? Monica Eaton-Cardone believes Generation Z will lead to much greater gender parity in tech recruitment. Eaton-Cardone, chief information officer at Global Risk Technologies and a champion of women in IT and leadership positions, said in a press release that technological literacy is a defining characteristic of Generation Z, and that we’re seeing the benefit of their impact on the workplace.

“Girls of this generation are less intimidated by technology and more likely to embrace the creative and problem-solving aspects of STEM careers,” Eaton-Cardone said. “Within the next decade, I expect women will account for a much greater proportion of technology and engineering occupations.”

While the likes of Google, Facebook and Oracle are spending millions on helping girls develop valuable tech skills, a new wave of Generation Z women are forging their own paths in the industry. Young female entrepreneurs are focusing on securing their own resources, establishing mutually beneficial investor relationships and, crucially, taking steps to prevent gender inequality from happening again.

In case anyone – besides James Damore, of course – is still wondering why we should bother to close the gender gap, here’s a reason: the UK needs 100,000 STEM professionals a year, and it doesn’t have them. And here’s another: companies are 15 per cent more likely to perform better if they are gender diverse.

The long and short of it is, gender diversity matters both ethically and financially. 

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