Being a Woman in Computer Science

After talking about the weather, one of the easiest ways to strike up a conversation with someone is to ask them “what do you do?” Like you, I’ve been asked this a lot. I don’t know what kind of responses you get, but one of the top ten I receive is, “Really? You don’t look like a programmer!” I usually smile, and try to find something witty to say, often asking them in return what they think a programmer should look like.

On the surface, the response, “you don’t look like a programmer” seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? However, it’s telling. Yes, we expect people in certain professions to look a particular way. Most people are surprised that a relatively outgoing female is a programmer, a software engineer.

The trouble is that most people don’t envision a technologist, a computer scientist, an entrepreneur, to look like me. When you close your eyes and think “programmer,” my guess is that you see a very different picture. Our mental schemas don’t prepare us for the image of a relatively outgoing woman to be placed in such a category. More simply put, it’s hard to recognize a pattern you aren’t used to seeing. So, big deal, I have a chat with those folks about it, we have an interesting conversation, and life moves on, right? Not so fast. There are economic and societal implications outside of my small world at play here.

Women bring diversity to the workplace. We bring a different perspective that is not only important from an economic standpoint, say making more money by engaging women as part of your audience, but also from a social standpoint. As John Campanelli, Publisher of Crain’s Cleveland Business, wrote in the 2014 Women of Note celebration editorial, “Quite simply, more female leadership means a more evolved workplace, more fulfilled employees, and more success.”

On top of that, when it comes to innovation, writing the code that makes our future, we need women’s perspectives to get a balance. For example, 17 year old Brittany Wenger won the Google Science Fair by writing a program that makes breast cancer detection more accurate, more affordable, and less painful to the patient. We need more girls like Brittany who bring their unique perspective to the modern world. What I’m saying is that this is not only affecting me and my female colleagues, it’s affecting you, and the future of our economy, innovation, and societal well-being.

Given that you see the benefit of adding more women to your tech team, and leadership positions, the next issue might be finding women to fit such positions. The number of women going into technology is declining. The number of female computer science graduates is down from 37% in 1984, to only 12-18% today. Women hold only a meager 18-25% of jobs in tech / computer fields. This is bad news for you, for me, for innovation, for our economy, and our collective future.

3 Myths that Stop Girls and Women from Going into Tech

1) Myth: Programming is a guy thing.

How to Overcome Myth: Promote females in technical roles. Give girls and women female mentors. Show them images of women in tech jobs.

2) Myth: Tech is lonely. There’s no relational aspect to it.

How to Overcome Myth: Show girls that isn’t the case. Promote team-challenges and pair coding. Introduce them to other aspects of technology like project management, architecture, and managerial roles, amongst others.

3) Myth: I’m bad at ______ (fill in the blank).

How to Overcome Myth: Promote research showing how skills are not fixed. Change mental schemas through role models, promotional materials, and fun projects. Promote the creativity involved in coding.

We Can Code IT was founded in order to actively address these issues head-on. We provide education, motivation, and mentorship to girls and women in computer science.