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How to Close the Tech Industry's Gender Gap

Getty/Alain Jocard

Every week, it seems, there’s another gender-related dustup in the technology world. The leader of a hacker movement quits over misogyny. A person in charge of recruiting Web developers is fired after publicly calling out sexual comments at a conference. Silicon Valley gets outed, once again, as a haven for bros. Each time, outrage and calls for reform ensue.

By the time these things happen, of course, it's too late to do much about them. The field is dominated by men, and its social norms are predictably guy oriented. Founders pay lip service to diversity but have enough things to worry about without chasing after needle-in-a-haystack female developers (the most successful example of whom, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, feels no special obligation to her sex). The only way to change that: Create a cultural critical mass that can make all women feel like they belong, not just the exceptional ones who thrive in virtual isolation.

"One of the big reasons why there aren't girls in computing is that there aren't girls in computing," says the National Center for Women and Information Technology's Ruthe Farmer. Even when computer science classes are available, girls often don't opt in—a phenomenon that has actually worsened over the last decade, drawing no end of consternation

There is a solution, and it's already working. At the elite public Stuyvesant High School just north of the financial district in Manhattan, girls don't have a choice: They all must take a year-long introductory computer science class to graduate. Now that everybody goes through the intro course, the higher-level AP Computer Science and software development classes also have more girls than they used to—about a third, which is somewhere between the 19 percent national average and Stuyvesant’s low girl-boy ratio. And lately, the tech world is getting peppered with Stuyvesant alumnae who, at a less progressive school, might never have discovered their interest in the field.

"Computer as a requirement means that you're there with all your friends," says 2008 graduate Amy Quispe, now a senior at Carnegie Mellon with a job awaiting her at Mixpanel, a San Francisco startup. "You don't have to worry about seeming like a nerd, you just have to go to class. If you go to school, and you have your computer class, and it's 50 percent women, it's no longer weird, it's no longer distracting." 

Universal computer science isn't just a good thing for gender balance in the field. It's good for everybody: Computing jobs are the highest-paid fast-growing sector in the U.S. economy, and a critical way for America to maintain its competitiveness. Even for those who don't become software developers, knowing the basics of how gadgets and the Internet work—and how to tinker with them, if necessary—unlocks a whole range of capabilities for people in healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and just about any small business one can imagine. If you can code a website, make an app, or gather and analyze vast amounts of data—or even know enough to realize what to ask of a trained professional—you’re already far ahead of the competition.

And yet, the American education system doesn't seem to have realized it. For all the talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Manufacturing (STEM) education, the number of computer science classes taught in high schools has actually declined in recent years. Where they exist, they rarely count towards graduation. A Congressional effort to fund computer science education in the states fizzled last year, and hasn't been reintroduced. The latest iteration of the Common Core Standards, which drives curriculum development in the states, makes only glancing reference to programming.

"I come across educator after educator who has been fighting, talking to their legislature, talking to their principals. It's falling on deaf ears. It's stupid. Stupid. It's mind boggling," says Farmer. "What we have realized is that we can't fix computing for girls without committing to fixing computer science for all students, because it's just not there. We're just squandering the resources of the United States at a massive scale, because we are literally screwing our kids by not giving them twenty-first century skills."

Stuyvesant's robust computer science program is the result of one guy: Mike Zamansky, who graduated from the school in 1984 and came back after college and a short stint at Goldman Sachs to teach. Without ever becoming an independent department or getting much in the way of extra resources, he was able to expand to the point where 150 kids now take the AP Computer Science test every year, and only because there aren’t enough seats to satisfy demand. Instead of college banners, his classrooms are hung with t-shirts from local startups. "My friend was saying, 'you hacked the school,' and it's basically true," says Zamansky, a 46-year-old dad who buzzes around in sneakers and a polo shirt. "I was able to weasel my in, and it took a long time."

Over the past few years, Zamansky—along with a few local tech executives, like Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson, who've encountered legions of his graduates—has been pushing the city to adopt his model. He's offered to host and train teachers so they can adapt his introductory course for their schools, and advocated for the creation of a kind of mini-Stuyvesant that would offer rigorous courses in computer science, but enough electives so that kids could thrive even if they decided the field wasn't for them.

Instead, the city’s Department of Education started the very small Academy for Software Engineering along with the early-college P-Tech school, and announced a pilot program that will launch in 20 schools next fall and reach a few thousand students by 2016. Ultimately, despite celebrating technology in every aspect of its governance, the city isn't sure it wants to make computer science a core requirement at all.

"I don't think we're ready to decide that," said Josh Thomases, who's overseeing the tech expansion for the Department of Education. "If we can provide additional resources"—the pilot is funded by a one-time $1 million donation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's charitable foundation—"I don't think 20 programs and two schools is where we should stop."

That's certainly not nothing. But it's far from the kind of systemic change that might be possible by simply replicating a proven program in as many schools as possible, and Zamansky is frustrated. "After hearing what these people want to do, it's going to screw things up even more," he says. "To be honest, I've given up on the school system." Accordingly, he's started a non-profit that will run after-school programs for kids outside Stuyvesant's walls. But he knows that's not the best way to bring kids off the sidelines either. "I also have no illusions about what I'm trying to do outside the school system, because as soon as you're outside the school system, people have to come to you," he says. "These pop-up programs are all well meaning, but they're not game changers."

And those are just the struggles facing New York, one of most tech-forward cities in the nation. Other places, where the potential impact of the tech industry isn't as keenly felt, are much worse off.

Take Kansas, where the education establishment thought it already had computing covered through vocational courses in typing and Microsoft Office. When the state’s Board of Regents realized that most kids learn basic computer skills through other courses, it cut the "computer technology" requirement altogether, instead of updating it to include actual code. (What the board didn’t realize is that many high schools, realizing its students were literate with computers, used the requirement to develop courses involving computer science.) 

"Most people think that our kids are coming out of childhood with computer skills that are relevant and useful," says Tabitha Hogan, who teaches in a district an hour south of Wichita, Kansas and leads the state's Computer Science Teachers Association chapter. "That's what's hurting us. They might be savvy enough to do something quickly with their friends in social media, but not to really develop their own ideas."

Also, it's hard for Kansans to understand why computer science is useful when Google doesn't employ thousands of residents and your town doesn’t have a culture of entrepreneurship. "It's different here in Kansas, because students and parents don't really don't see it as a viable career choice," Hogan says. "The promise of tech for rural America really hasn't come through yet."1 And why would a state education department want to prepare kids for jobs they'll have to go out of state to get?

There’s a litany of other obstacles: It's nearly impossible to get trained computer scientists to take a teacher's salary, when they could be making so much more in the private sector (not an obstacle you have, for example, with English teachers). "Technology" budgets go toward buying iPads and other hardware rather than training in how to understand it. Schools on squeezed budgets are already cutting courses people are accustomed to, like music and art; convincing them to do implement a new field of study isn’t easy. 

When getting computer science into core curricula is still so far away, advocates are stuck with half measures. In Los Angeles, a National Science Foundation–funded partnership has developed a curriculum that involves aggressively reaching out to both girls and students of color, as well as making lessons relevant to their lives. Non-profits like Girls Who Code2 and are connecting tech professionals with kids on the ground, as well as raising awareness that everybody should know about the guts of their smartphones, rather than just how to use them.

If there's hope for comprehensive computer science education, it's in the individual teachers that talk their schools and their districts into giving it a try—like Tammy Pirmann, who was a computer consultant before becoming a teacher in Springfield Township, Pennsylvania, eight years ago. She convinced her district to swap out its old keyboarding class for one that met the Computer Science Teachers Association standards, and used the time she had for professional development to train other teachers to handle it. Our of last year's graduating class of 150 kids, eleven are majoring in computer science in college—and four of them are girls.

It's tiny compared to New York City, and the classes aren't as advanced as the ones Zamansky's high-performing students take. But at least Pirmann's kids will have a route into the profession that's changing the world as we know it, rather than passively consuming the wonders it creates. "I have ninth graders who truly believe it's all magical," Pirmann says. "The apps fairy delivers apps."

It's not too much to expect that all kids should know that such things are man-made, and that making them is within their reach. Only then can we change perceptions about what kind of person studies computer science and rectify the field’s stubborn gender imbalance, along with its attendant sexist flare-ups. Ultimately, the only thing that solves the problem of too few women is more women. Giving all girls a chance to see if they’re interested is the best way to start. Maybe, one day, “nerd” will no longer be gender specific.

  1. Jan Cuny, who oversees grants for computer science education at the National Science Foundation, also says kids don't understand the opportunities. "They come to high school with preconceived notions: computing is hard, computing has no social relevance," she says. "Parents tell kids that all the jobs in computing have been offshored. There's nothing to change that for them."

  2. "I do think computer science should be mandatory, especially because it's clear where the jobs are at," says Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, who's also running for New York City Public Advocate. "The jury is not still out with me."