The gender gap in tech is getting worse but it's fixable

New research from Accenture and Girls Who Code, released at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing last week, reveals that the gender gap in tech is actually getting worse. Here's what you can do to fix it.

The gender gap in tech is getting worse but it's fixable
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With all the recent attention paid to the IT skills gap and the need for more women and underrepresented minorities in technology, you'd think that the IT industry would have innovative solutions, programs and processes in place to fix it. You'd be wrong.

New research from global professional services company Accenture and not-for-profit organization Girls Who Code, unveiled at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, held in Houston last week, that despite heightened awareness of the problem, without interventions, strategic planning and targeted tactics, the share of women in the U.S. computing workforce will decline from the current rate of 24 percent to 22 percent by 2025.

The silver lining? Interventions to encourage girls and young women to pursue a computer science education could triple the number of women in computing to 3.9 million, growing their share of technology jobs from 24 percent today to 39 percent in the same timeframe and boosting women's cumulative earnings by $299 billion.

The research, Cracking the Gender Code, measured how the factors influencing girls' pursuit of computer sciences change at each stage of their education and recommends a more tailored and sequenced series of actions starting in junior high school and sustained through high school and college.

Accenture and Girls Who Code carried out in-depth ethnographies and focus groups to identify issues, drivers, barriers and perceptions among girls aged 12 to 18, undergraduates, young workers, parents and teachers, and then used the findings of the qualitative study to interview more than 8,000 individuals to validate and quantify results.

In a panel discussion held at GHC, moderated by Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, Accenture's group chief executive for North America, Julie Sweet, was joined by Rebecca Minkoff, co-founder and creative director at Rebecca Minkoff, a fashion and lifestyle company which last year launched a partnership with Intel to increase the pipeline of young women entering STEM fields, and Candace Morgan, head of diversity at Pinterest, to discuss the research and explore recommendations for addressing the gender gap, as well as provide examples of how organizations like Rebecca Minkoff and Pinterest are tackling the issue.

The research suggests three main actions to reverse the projected decline of women in technology at three critical junctures in girls' and women's lives, including sparking interest in junior high school; sustaining engagement in high school and inspiring a career after college.

[ Related story: On the road to Grace Hopper 2016 ]

Spark interest in junior high

Today's junior high school girls have the potential to fill 1.6 million extra computing positions by 2025 -- twice the potential of high school and college girls combined, according to the research. Greater guidance from parents and teachers can show girls that computing is cool, fun and a means to realize their aspirations, not just a pursuit for their male counterparts. One recommendation from the research is to boost girls' hands-on experience through computer games specifically designed for girls.

"I'm lucky, in a sense, because in my industry the major role models have been women; in design, PR, fashion. But when it comes to tech, that's not the case. Girls, especially junior high girls, are still seeing the trope of the guy in a hoodie who hasn't showered and drinks too much Red Bull. We have to change the way these careers are marketed. This is one of the sexiest things you can pursue -- it's the Wild West, or a beauty company or a makeup company. Look at [supermodel and businesswoman] Coco Rocha. Look at [supermodel and digital native] Karlie Kloss -- these are women who leverage technology every day," Minkoff says.

[ Related story: StubHub works to grow diversity inside and out ]

Sustain engagement in high school

The high school years tend to be a time of high risk, where girls fall into the "high school trap," losing interest in computing and never returning to the field, the research showed. Recent research from CompTIA also showed that girls and young women's interest in technology declined as much as 30 percent upon entering high school.

Among the recommended interventions is the idea for a summer camp where girls study computing with their female friends -- and/or further investment in programs like Girls Who Code and other organizations providing similar programs. The research found that 81 percent of high school girls who studied computing over the summer were interested in studying it at college, compared to 52 percent who only studied computing at school.

Inspire a career after college

While the college years are critical to exposing women to career opportunities, the research found that the door to computing careers never closes, as girls can learn computer science skills post-college even if they've had no previous formal education. In fact, more than half the women working in computing profiled in the research didn't major in computer science in college. One recommendation from the research: Offer all undergraduates, not just computing/technology majors, on-campus and summer immersion programs in computing and/or coding.

The demand for computing skills in the workplace far outstrips supply, plaguing U.S. employers with a talent shortage, the research showed. In 2015, for example, there were more than 500,000 open computing jobs to be filled in the U.S. but fewer than 40,000 new computer science graduates to fill them. The untapped potential of women to fill these roles has vast implications for U.S competitiveness.

The panel also discussed how to improve the recruiting, interviewing and hiring process once women enter the technology workforce, including removing gendered language from job descriptions and educating hiring managers and HR professionals on "what not to do" in an interview.

"One company we worked with asked how they could improve the quality of their interview questions to remove bias. In the course of this conversation, one of the recruiters realized they'd been trying to start by finding a common ground with interviewees -- by asking questions about baseball teams. Now, there are plenty of women who like baseball, but this is a pretty solid example of a way to be exclusionary before you even start. Thankfully, they were able to see that and change their approach for the future," Saujani says.

[ Related story: Leading women in technology: LinkedIn's Erica Lockheimer ]

Leadership lessons

Many organizations, including Pinterest, are hiring executives to oversee their diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and to provide more public accountability, says Pinterest's Candace Morgan.

"When it comes to a company's leadership, you have to have your commitment reflected in the highest levels. The CEO's job is to set the direction that company will take and is accountable to that. But the CEO will get counsel from their CFO about finance. They'll get counsel from their chief legal executive about matters of law. They get counsel from their chief marketing officer about marketing -- that's what the role of a D&I executive is, and it's so important," Morgan says.

In addition, Pinterest piloted an apprenticeship program to target women career-changers or women who'd graduated from a bootcamp or other non-traditional educational institution, she says.

"We know many engineers don't have that formal education, and that's OK. We're looking for people who have skills and experience from bootcamps and other programs. Women can apply to Pinterest as an apprentice, and we bring you on, pair you up with an existing team member and you are assigned to an engineering team. After three months, you have the opportunity to transition to a full-time role at the company," Morgan says.

Recognize, too, that D&I isn't just a job for HR, but for everyone at all levels of the organization says Accenture's Sweet. To that end, Accenture recently tripled the referral bonus for any employee who referred a potential employee from an underrepresented group, she says.

"We recognized that referrals often are the source of our best hires, and we already reward that with a bonus. But we are now launching an initiative to triple the bonus for employees that refer women, candidates with disabilities, veterans, people of color or other underrepresented minorities to increase the amount of diverse candidates in the pipeline. So often we hear, 'Why didn't HR send me any diverse candidates?' and we think it's not only HR's job to do that -- it's everyone's job, at every level," Sweet says.

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This story, "The gender gap in tech is getting worse but it's fixable" was originally published by CIO.

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