Encouraging More Women to Study Computer Science

Encouraging More Women to Study Computer Science

Encouraging More Women to Study Computer Science

Many people attribute the stagnancy of women and minority representation in computer science education to the lack of incentives for those involved in the field. There is no “appointment bonus” offered to any of the employees, said Michelle Oliver, CTO at EqualBiz, which is a company providing technology and recruiting solutions for the nonprofit sector. There is no guaranteed salary for women, she said. And a woman could look like a smart and capable scientist in his or her mind, but go for a job as a doctor or in another field.

The Silicon Valley lab that is catching the attention of many employers is the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which works on science and technology. These labs work for the Defense Department, and hence draw a different type of employee. “There’s no Science Fair,” Oliver said. There are no rankings to top the workplace. A woman who fits the average profile for the job might get promoted, she said, but won’t win an award for excellence. The lab has demonstrated that computer science skills can be learned, however, by anyone: It’s an 8-week training program.

Now DARPA has announced a second program: a paid apprenticeship for military women interested in computer science. In the Next Million program, women in the military can take classes in coding and bring their work home to their community while their civilian bosses learn how to better address cybersecurity needs. The Pentagon has the potential to reach out to its employees and explain why the skills they develop at the lab are needed, as many Americans can understand when a cop who learns how to use a Taser is looked at as a hero rather than as a murderer.

This has the potential to be a pivotal program to get more women and minorities into computer science jobs. When the Next Million program launches, the first batch of women will be expected to earn around $30,000 a year and the second round of hires are estimated to bring in an annual salary of more than $75,000. And while women make up just 13 percent of the workforce in computer science, not to mention the percentages of women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, only 8 percent of the women who are computer science students are enrolled in certificate programs. Based on best practices from other creative programs like New York University’s Computer Science for Women (CSW) program, the next step would be for the Pentagon to create an expanded curriculum for that program, along with CSW’s Coding to CTEC (Computer Science to Circuits) program and similar programs at colleges and technical schools. There would also need to be a mix of hiring managers in different departments from the military.

Many companies are still afraid to take big initiatives to increase hiring of computer science workers, particularly women and people of color. For that reason, we tend to think of solutions as individual propositions: A woman hires more women at her company because she sees more women in tech, or just because she wants to give diversity as much credence as any other company issues. There is not enough interest in creating bottom-up solutions that come from collective efforts from a variety of companies to increase the representation of women and people of color in computer science, so we have to move beyond the idea that the only way to increase diversity and promote inclusion is to rely on the individual business to address each company’s own problem.

Mary Vance-Wallace, the executive director of the Integrated Leadership Leadership Institute (ILLI), is preparing to mentor women in the Next Million program. She said ILLI’s problem research suggests that people in IT — or “I.T.” as she prefers to call it — are very unhappy with the current state of affairs in computer science education and in the technical workplace. But for companies to make real change, Vance-Wallace said, we need to think of how employers can grow the pipeline. The federal government could be a leader in the way that happens.

As for those women with humanities skills who want a change, Vance-Wallace added, “There’s so much world-building involved that people with certain expertise in it like working with people. We don’t look at the tech so much as being a monolith, and the whole thing being black or white or red.”

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