The share of women in one of the fastest growing, high pay fields has actually shrunk over the past few decades.
The findings indicate that women and certain minority groups face discrimination, pay discrepancies and other challenges as they navigate careers in those fields, according to a report on diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
The data showing a marked decline in women participating in computing occupations is particularly striking because it indicates that even as we’ve become more aware of the obstacles and opportunities available to women in computing careers, the share of women pursuing them has dropped.
What did Pew find?
• In 1990, women accounted for about 32% of people working in computing occupations. Today, they make up just 25% of those working in the sector.
• Yet the sector actually grew by 338%, between 1990 and 2014-2016, more than any other STEM job in recent decades.
Computing occupations is a field that includes jobs like computer scientists, software developers and programmers, many of which are based in Silicon Valley. What’s more, during the same period that the share of women in computing fields dropped, the sector actually grew — more than any other STEM job cluster in recent decades, according to Pew.
Why should you care?
The report comes as the tech industry has been grappling with the question of gender equality. A memo by a male Google engineer who claimed women weren’t suited to tech jobs because of their personalities touched off a firestorm of debate in 2017. The engineer, James Damore, sued Google on Monday for firing him, alleging that the company discriminated against him.
And the lack of women in computing fields, isn’t just a problem for women, it’s an issue for society as a whole, said Jessica Milli, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. These sectors are often at the forefront of innovation and a lack of diversity can stymie that. She cited the example of the seatbelt, which when first invented by a group of men was only tested on crash dummies with male frames. That resulted in higher mortality rates when the belts went to market.
“If you only have white men sitting in the room trying to develop solutions for new products, you’re only going to get one small perspective there,” Milli said.
Why are women opting out of STEM jobs at such a high rate?
One reason: few are exposed to the field during their schooling. Nearly 40% of respondent to the Pew survey indicated that a lack of encouragement at an early age may be partly to blame for the low level of women in STEM fields.
Unlike biology, chemistry, physics or other science courses, computer science is often offered as an elective in grade and high school, which means that young women and girls may not come into contact with the field, Milli said.
‘We see all the time in the research literature, it can be difficult for young girls to see themselves as engineers or coders if they haven’t had any experience of doing it themselves.’
“We see all the time in the research literature, it can be difficult for young girls to see themselves as engineers or coders if they haven’t had any experience of doing it themselves,” she said.
Even when students are introduced to computer courses, it’s often not until high school, well after both girls and boys develop their interests, said Hadi Partovi, the chief executive of Code.org, a Seattle-based nonprofit, which aims to expand access to computer science.
What’s more, traditional coding courses often focus on very narrow problems — like coding to calculate the fibonacci sequence, a string of numbers where the previous two add up to the next — and takes very specialized interest.
His organization tries to bring coding courses that feature real-world challenges, like building apps, to more students at an earlier age. So far, it appears efforts like Code.org may be helping. More than 29,000 female students sat for an advanced placement exam in computer science in 2017 compared to just 2,600 10 years earlier.
What happens to those female graduates who do major in computing?
But it’s not just educational challenges keeping women from pursuing and staying in careers in computing. Just 38% of women who majored in computer science are working in the field, compared to 53% of men, according to Pew.
Often companies that employ a lot of computer workers will focus on recruitment or schooling as a way to address gender diversity because it may seem like an easier nut to crack than addressing thornier problems like hostile work environments, said Rachel Thomas, the founding researcher at San Francisco-based fast.ai, which aims to make technology more reliable and intuitive.
“Until companies change their culture and their processes to create an environment where women are able to succeed and want to stay, you’re not really going to see the numbers change,” she said.
Thomas, who worked for Silicon Valley companies before co-founding fast.ai, said tech companies’ tendency to expand very quickly can put women and minorities — who often have to spend more time proving themselves at work — at a disadvantage. That rapid rise may also allow workers with little training to become managers, which means they could be more susceptible to the kind of unconscious bias that allows certain groups, namely, white males, to get ahead than managers at more established companies.
What’s more, a belief among technologists that they’re running their companies on reason and logic may compound these issues, because they don’t realize that subjectivity could actually be seeping in to the way they evaluate workers, Thomas said.
What other challenges do women workers face in Silicon Valley?
In addition to all of these more subtle forms of discrimination, women in technology jobs may be subject to other types of outright harassment, as has been widely reported and that could be deterring women from pursuing careers in computing, Milli said.
“The industry has become really unfriendly towards women” she said. “Now with the dawn of the internet and social media, these examples are shared widely and women know that this is a particularly unfriendly environment for them.”
That’s a major problem because computing and other STEM careers can be among the highest paying fields, Milli said. One of the reasons there’s such a large gender pay gap: women often end up in fields that pay less, she said. Still, even once women make it into STEM jobs they’re still paid less; median earnings for women working full-time, year-round in STEM are about 72% of their male counterparts, according to IWPR.