In many STEM fields, women are making a mark.
Roughly as many women graduate from medical school as men, and about 40 percent of chemists are female. Women are even taking on a majority of jobs in certain fields; more than 50 percent of biological science professionals, for example, and now women. However, the computing field has seen a net decrease in female participation since the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when women were seeing major gains in other fields.
Women often express feeling uncomfortable when there aren’t other women in the office or their field, and many believe numbers will increase significantly when the number of women in tech reaches critical mass. Researchers have even given a name related to the phenomenon: Imposter syndrome. Being the only women in an office can make someone feel like they’re an imposter who doesn’t belong. Perhaps, many experts believe, increasing the visibility of women in tech will lead to the phenomenon fading over time. Unraveling why women historically haven’t entered the field, however, is important as well.
Gender roles have long shaped how society views jobs. The history of women in nursing has made medicine seem like an acceptable field for women, and there is now near-parity among doctors. Although women have long played a role in computer technology, this history is not as well understood, and parents have, historically, been far more likely to encourage boys to explore computing while encouraging girls to consider other activities. This early exposure gap continues today, and early experience with computers can encourage children and adolescents to consider technology as a career possibility. Teaching computing in schools can be a valuable means to close this gap.
Perhaps the more worrying statistics about women and computing are those showing how often women leave tech fields. When describing why they left, many women point to open hostility from coworkers and bosses. These incidents are often isolated, but many women state they simply didn’t feel safe in the office. Women also point to cultural elements; the “tech bro” culture, especially in Silicon Valley, can be off-putting to both men and women, but women often feel excluded and even demeaned. Less-outward hostility is viewed as a problem as well, as many women in the field feel they don’t get the credit or respect their work demands. This idea is backed by studies that show code produced by women is rated higher when the evaluator doesn’t know the author’s gender.
Some elements of tech culture many men find innocuous can be off-putting for women. While alcohol consumption can be seen as a way to bond with others, women are sometimes wary that it increases the likelihood of sexual harassment or abuse. “Booth babes,” common at some tech conventions, can send the message that men in technology objectify women. Online, women who speak about gender and technology often receive disproportionate, and even threatening, responses. While there’s much that can be done to support women working in tech, these cultural elements can dissuade talented and qualified women from seeking out roles in tech fields.
Tech fields are thriving, and employers often express frustration at a lack of qualified professionals. However, half of the potential labor force participates at a disproportionately low rate, and there’s no single solution to closing this gap. While progress has been slow, more and more women are entering tech, and companies both large and small are taking strides to ensure they’re training and recruiting the best talent possible, regardless of gender.