What really turns women off from a career in technology these days? Is it the bro culture? An inflexible work schedule? The lack of opportunities?
During a recent conference in San Francisco that was focused on women, a group of leaders who have looked at this question for years attempted to explain why the number of female computer science graduates is down 19 percentage points from 1985, when 37 percent of those with a new CS degree were women.
Julie Elberfeld, senior vice president of commercial banking at Capital One, and Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, struggled to pinpoint one main reason for the decline of women in the field during a panel at the Tech Superwomen Summit on Thursday.
Elberfeld and Bryant were both engineers in the 1980s, when the technology work force looked significantly different from what it does today. While women were in the minority, Elberfeld attests that engineering didn’t feel overwhelmingly like a male-dominated field.
“It’s always a series of things and almost something women themselves can hardly identify,” Elberfeld said.
She and Bryant didn’t point to any of the reasons above as things they believe have led to the deficit. But they did mention some lesser-acknowledged explanations as to why women are trickling into technology in dismal numbers and why, once they’re there, the majority of them leave.
1. The media isn’t telling the whole story.
“I think we need to demystify that not every single company and not every single scenario is what is portrayed in the media,” Elberfeld said. “There are some really great cultures and really great places to work.”
By coincidence, a Newsweek article entitled “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women” was published Thursday and describes numerous examples of sexist behavior in the Valley’s business scene.
In an interview, Elberfeld said she hadn’t yet had a chance to read the article, but she thought its cover choice — of a cartoon woman with an arrow cursor lifting up her skirt — was unfortunate.
“If you’re a parent of a daughter and you see something like that … your reaction is going to be: Oh, you don’t want to go do that because the last thing I want to have happen to you is that you’re treated this way,” she said.
“If that’s happening at those companies, it needs to be fixed, but it’s unfortunate that we don’t talk about the rest of the organizations that are doing great things.”
2. Public schooling needs to keep up with the times.
Bryant’s daughter inspired her to found Black Girls Who Code, a technology education nonprofit, in 2011. Bryant wanted her daughter to do something productive with her love of gaming when she was in middle school, so she encouraged her to learn several programming languages.
Three years later, when Bryant tried to enroll her daughter in AP Computer Science as a freshman, she encountered resistance from a teacher who told her she would have to wait until she was an upperclassman. “And we’re like, ‘You don’t understand who this kid is,'” Bryant joked.
Bryant instead enrolled her daughter in an introductory class, which she aced. She was then allowed to take the upper-level course. But not all young students bounce back from an initial rejection like that, Bryant noted. “That’s one of the things I think that often stops women before they even get started,” she said.
3. Frankly, business careers are sometimes more attractive.
Most women in technology — 56 percent — leave when they reach midlevel, according to research from Harvard Business School. Why?
Elberfeld has found from speaking with women who have moved on from a tech career that they often leave to become involved with the business side of their organization.
“A lot of times it has to do with the fact that women have a broad set of interests,” she said. “And so they are frequently asked by someone in the company to join the business side of things.”
This usually provides women with a clear path to an executive position, which they don’t often get the chance to pursue otherwise.
“It’s that value statement. It’s hearing ‘I feel valued’ that attracts them to business. This is something that we don’t do enough of for women in tech,” Elberfeld said.