By Lori Cameron and Michael Martinez
If Google wants more women engineers—and possibly avoid the embarrassing debacle over an internal memo claiming that biological differences explain why so few females work in tech—then it should consider a path that researchers say will promote diversity in Silicon Valley.
It won’t be a quick fix.
Rather, it will be a journey that begins with the earliest years of a girl’s education. And it will involve a near society-wide network of support, from parents to teachers to principals to peers, according to a recent study.
The low representation of women at Google, like many tech titans, is receiving renewed attention because Google recently fired a male software engineer who sparked a firestorm by writing an eight-page internal memo about why so relatively few women are engineers.
The memo’s author, James Damore, claimed that “neuroticism” and low stress tolerance “may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety that women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”
Silicon Valley has much work ahead to repair its current environment of sexual harassment, lack of upward mobility, and discrimination against women. Women are leaving the tech workforce in droves precisely because of it, and fewer girls are taking tech courses in high school or considering tech as a college major. The gender diversity crisis worsens with each step.
While many researchers ponder how to get more women interested in tech, a new study reveals what already does—especially among high school students.
Wendy DuBow and Joanna Weidler-Lewis of the University of Colorado, Boulder and Alexis Kaminsky of Kaminsky Consulting interviewed 64 girls about why they are—or are not—studying computing, and they are urging the tech sector to heed their findings, according to “Multiple Factors Converge to Influence Women’s Persistence in Computing: A Qualitative Analysis” published in the May/June 2017 issue of the IEEE Computer Society’s Computing in Science & Engineering magazine.
Those 64 girls came from a pool of high school students who were considered among the most talented young women across the country because they participated in a computing competition sponsored by the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
Here are three things the researchers found about getting more girls and women to pursue careers in tech—told in the voices of the girls themselves.
Parents must support daughters
This advice might sound obvious, but researchers said early exposure to computing and parental support are part of “multiple supportive factors” that can contribute to a girl’s success.
For one West Coast woman, all it took was a little parental enthusiasm.
“My mom’s a computer scientist,” said the young woman from the Pacific Northwest. “She always really talked about how cool it is.”
Down the coast, a young Latina from California’s Central Valley cited a more forceful influence.
Her parents, she said, “were really focused on me getting a higher education…they convinced me to [take] AP classes, honors classes, and to challenge myself.”
But an Asian-American woman said her parents were subtle and nuanced in providing her career guidance. They set unspoken expectations, she said.
“My dad does math and sciences, and so he obviously wants to project that onto me,” she said.
Teachers must get involved too
For many girls who don’t find support at home, teachers can make a world of difference. Teachers can inspire and boost a girl’s confidence to study tech.
One Indian girl who immigrated to the United States while in high school credited her teacher for pointing her in the right direction. The girl also received recognition from the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
“When I got the NCWIT certificate, I gave it to [my teacher], and she hung it. She still has it on her wall. I feel like if she wouldn’t have told me that I’m good enough, then I guess I would have never believed that I was. You know, you need somebody to tell you you’re good enough,” the girl said.
“It’s a great booster to talk to other girls.”
Another girl, whom researchers assigned the pseudonym of Sophia, decided to enroll in the only computing course offered at her high school of 3,000 students.
Her teacher devised ways to ensure girls wouldn’t drop the class: “[He] would give us more side projects so we’d be more interested because he was worried we’d get out, like, on the second week,” she said.
Friends and peers are the greatest influence
The support of parents and teachers is not enough. Of all the social groups girls look to for affirmation and acceptance, friends and peers emerge as the most influential.
Researchers emphasize that “building supportive networks for girls is critical because youth consider their peers as guides, especially when they lack adult mentors or role models.”
While early exposure to computing and good classes go a long way in getting young women interested in computing, research shows that personal relationships go even further in helping them stick with it.
For some young women, their interest in computing grew along with their budding friendships.
“I’ve met a lot of close friends who are insanely good at computer science.”
Said the girl from the Pacific Northwest, whom researchers named Joan: “A lot of us throughout elementary school and onward…we’d do, like, math competitions, things of that nature. [It was] that same group of people that we ended up joining robotics with and doing AP computer science with.”
Competitions targeting girls also helps. In those contests, a competitor can end up a friend.
“It’s a great booster to talk to other girls. I would have still continued doing computer science, but NCWIT has given me so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten if I wasn’t a part of it,” said the girl who emigrated from India.
Guys can play a role too.
Their respect and acceptance served as a turning point for at least one girl whom researchers assigned the pseudonym Martha:
“It’s actually great ‘cause I’ve built a friend group, through my robotics team, a bunch of guys who are just totally willing to show me. They’ll teach anyone because that’s just the sort of people they are. That’s pretty great.”
Others draw inspiration from the creativity and intelligence of their peers.
The Asian-American girl whom researchers called Stephanie added, “Another reason that I’m doing more computer science now is ‘cause…I’ve met a lot of close friends who are insanely good at computer science. I’m surrounded by all these amazing people, and it’s kind of influenced me to do more computer science.”