October 4, 2012 - 11:32 am
By Ann Mei Chang | Department of State Senior Advisor for Women and Technology

As a twelve year old girl, I came across the Space Invaders video arcade game and was mesmerized by the relentless thump-thump of the advancing aliens, the satisfying sound effects, and the addictive simplicity of the game play.  Soon thereafter, I convinced my parents to buy my first computer, an Atari 400 with its awkward membrane keypad, and became entranced by the potential of building my own interactive experiences.  I set out to teach myself the BASIC programming language and learned how to make pixels move around the screen.  While I never developed a full-fledged video game, before I finished high school I went on to write a grading application for teachers at school, build a voice command interface demo at the local Army post, and teach at a computer summer camp.

After completing a Computer Science degree at Stanford University, I went on to work as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.  I found myself coding up algorithms and routines for this or that function within much bigger projects.  The analytical puzzles kept me challenged, but it was less than fully satisfying.  As part of a bigger team, I missed designing how the product would work, interacting with real users, and weighing which features were most important.  I became drawn to management positions that would give me this broader purview, solving real problems and designing complete solutions.  It is this tangible aspect of real world problem solving that I believe is key to engaging more girls and women (as well as boys and men) in technology -- make the work tangible and relevant.

Many girls and women who show an initial interest and aptitude for computer science find narrow coding tasks to be isolating and unfulfilling.  Starting around junior high, girls start opting out of the field of computing and continue to opt out through high school, college, graduate school, and throughout their professional careers.  Ominously, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women in the U.S. has declined from over 37% in 1984 to 18% in 2010.  At more senior levels, the representation of women diminishes to 11% of corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 technology companies, 4% of senior management positions in technical/R&D departments in Silicon Valley companies, and only 8% of leaders of venture-backed start-ups.

This disparity not only undermines opportunities for women, but also exacerbates an economic imbalance as computing related jobs are growing at twice the rate of other jobs.  In the U.S., the Department of Labor estimates that there will be more than 1.4 million new computing related jobs by 2018, and that half of those will go unfilled if current trends continue.  The under-representation of women in computing fields is also a significant factor in women’s lower income levels. The World Bank has found that the wage gap between men and women is impacted more by the lower-paying job sectors women pursue than wage differences between similar jobs. 

Early exposure to technology, curricula oriented around tangible problems rather than abstract concepts, visible role models, and peer support through girls’ camps or clubs have all been shown to improve the retention of girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) studies.  Harvey Mudd College found that when they redesigned their mandatory introduction to computer science class to use tools that enabled students to write interesting and useful programs quickly, offered students the opportunity to attend a conference for women in computing, and provided hands-on research experiences, they more than doubled the percentage of women choosing to major in computer science.

Certainly, there are innate challenges for women working in the still largely male-dominated computing industry, and both overt and covert discrimination exist.  At the same time, structuring both academic curricula and industry projects to embrace building complete solutions that meet real needs can make software development more fulfilling for women... and for men.  It might even result in better designed and more usable products for us all.