In this post, published for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021, Polly Lagana (Executive MSc Behavioural Science, 2019) discusses how to encourage more young women to enter into technology fields using the power of community.
If technology leaders and educators design university programmes and career opportunities that value community building as much as skill building, we have a better shot at recruiting a new generation of women computer scientists.
Girls around the world are coding at young ages, outperforming boys, and winning awards for making complex apps and websites. So why are women earning such a small fraction of computer science and engineering degrees?
As a behavioural scientist (and once-aspiring computer scientist who dropped out of a CS minor), I decided to delve into the reasons behind why such large numbers of highly-skilled young women pivot away from computer science once they enter university. I learned that while young women have what it takes to be successful computer scientists, they experience what I call the unicorn effect and leave the field to pursue other paths that offer a stronger sense of community.
How do unicorns and technology relate?
In the technology world, female computer scientists are sometimes known as “unicorns”, as rare and highly sought after as the mythical creature. Women opt into technology college and career opportunities at incredibly low rates. Only 18% percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women in the US (NSA, 2018) and 13% in the UK (HESA, 2018). Numbers plummet even further when segmented by ethnicity. Only 5% of university degrees in computer science are earned by Black women, resulting in a “unicorn with sparkles” (Ross et al., 2016).
Universities and companies around the globe recognise the problem and are pouring significant resources into pipeline training programmes. Yet once young women gain a certain level of skill, I discovered what I like to call the unicorn effect kicks in. The young women start to crave a like-minded community to support their journey. If they cannot find it, they opt out.
I saw this phenomenon occur with my own students, most of whom are first in their families to attend university. I would offer technology opportunities, and the first question was whether or not they would be the only girl in the room. We must recognise the barriers of aloneness that exist for young women in technology and counter with programmes that prioritise community building.
Technology Wasn’t Always a Boys-Only Club
Did you know that women programmed the first digital computers? You can pinpoint the date when women transformed from tech pioneers to unicorns – 1984. Computers flooded the market, especially in the United States, and suddenly a switch was flipped by manufacturers who targeted the devices primarily to boys and men (Henn, 2014). Limiting the early exposure of computers solely to boys started a harmful narrative that technology was not for girls and perpetuated a bias against women in technology.
The brain drain of women continued for decades within computer science education programmes, leaving us still trying to fill the seats in technology classrooms with women. Girls are gaining the skills, yet once the shining stars reach the point of entering university, they shy away from studying technology in higher education, effectively closing the door to a tech or engineering career (Mostafa, T. (2019).
Diversity is the Key to Tech Industry Success
The technology industry recognises that a diverse voice is critical to meeting industry demand and remaining on top of the increasingly competitive global landscape. Employers are trying to significantly shore up the talent pool, projecting a 23% increase in technology positions by 2024 (National Science Board, 2018). The European Institute for Gender Equality even went so far to say that Europe could improve its GDP by achieving gender equality in STEM education (EIGE, 2017).
Connecting, Sharing and Caring: The Power of Communal Goals
Women of all income levels and ethnicities have been led to believe that if you enter computer science, you are far less likely to experience a culture of connecting, sharing, and caring with others (Boucher et al., 2017). When young women were exposed to professionals in the STEM industry who said they valued the communal and social impact aspects of their work, the interest and likelihood of a tech career increased (Margolis, Jane; Fisher, Allan; Miller, 2016). But which of these factors is most important?
In my research, I found that the connecting with a like-minded community ranked most highly in the equation. I conducted a study with first-generation university women where I framed a coding programme in a variety of ways to see which resulted in a higher turnout. A larger number of students with coding experience chose the programme focusing on community rather than the programmes focusing on social impact (coding for good) or skill-building. Money, skills, and social impact can only take you so far if you remain isolated and without a support system throughout your university and career experience. It seems that young women on the cusp of career and college opportunities want to feel a sense of belonging.
A Challenge to Technology Leaders
If technology leaders and educators design university programmes and career opportunities that value community building as much as skill building, we have a better shot at recruiting a new generation of women computer scientists. Universities should focus on community and collaboration during recruitment and the on-ramp portion of school, when young women are exploring majors and selecting courses, and continue the support throughout their university experience.
I challenge the technology community, especially universities, to create more inclusive communities by going beyond conferences, monthly meetings, and affinity groups with the goal that there is never just one woman in any classroom, team, or boardroom.
- Views expressed in this post are of the author and not of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.
- Photo by Christina @wocintechchat.com via Unsplash here.
- This post is part of a series for International Women’s Day 2021. Find out more about IWD at https://www.internationalwomensday.com/
Boucher, K. L., Fuesting, M. A., Diekman, A. B., & Murphy, M. C. (2017). Can I Work with and Help Others in This Field? How Communal Goals Influence Interest and Participation in STEM Fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 901. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00901
Henn, S. (2014). When Women Stopped Coding : Planet Money : NPR. Retrieved November 11, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding
HESA – Experts in Higher Education and Data and Analysis. 2017/2018. Report – Retrieved from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/.
Margolis, Jane; Fisher, Allan; Miller, F. (n.d.). Carnegie Mellon Caring About Connections: Gender and University. Retrieved from https://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/project/gendergap/www/papers/IEEE99.html
Mostafa, T. (2019). “Why don’t more girls choose to pursue a science career?”. PISA in Focus, No. 93, OECD Publishing. Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/02bd2b68-en.
National Science Board. (2018a). Report – S&E Indicators 2018 | NSF – National Science Foundation. Retrieved September 6, 2018, from https://nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/science-and-engineering-labor-force/women-and-minorities-in-the-s-e-workforce
Ross, M., Godwin, A., Chair, J. H., Pawley, A., Main, J., & Streveler, R. (2016). A Unicorn’s Tale: Examining the Experiences of Black Women in the Engineering Industry. https://doi.org/10195283