How Tech Can Get More Women Into Software Engineering
Geetha Gandhi grew up with science. Her father, a rocket scientist at the Indian Space Research Organization, incorporated math and science into nearly every interaction with his daughters. He’d cut dosas into quarters to teach them fractions. A raindrop on a leaf would lead to a lesson in surface tension. One day, her father brought home a computer. “He said, ‘Here you go, play around with it,’” Gandhi said. “Every little mathematical thing, he’d make it more fun, he’d make it practical.”
That childhood experience led Gandhi to pursue a career in tech. She majored in computer science at India’s National Institute of Technology, then earned a master’s degree. She graduated with 45 people, 22 of whom were women. After graduating, she spent several years as a software developer at Ramco Systems, a software-and-services provider based in India.
Gandhi moved to the United States in the early 2000s, working as a software engineer at a large financial institution. Months into working in the U.S., she noticed that, more and more, she was the only woman technologist at a meeting or conference. At one meeting, a male colleague asked her if she was taking notes or keeping time, assuming she was in the meeting for those tasks, not to share expertise, even though she was in a senior leadership role. While leading meetings, she’d have male colleagues tell her that a 20-hour project would take 80 hours, assuming that she didn’t know enough to realize they were fibbing. Some would tell her outright that they didn’t think they could be managed by a woman; in one instance, human resources stepped in to resolve the issues.
Gandhi is now senior director, modern digital transformation and cloud strategy at Avanade, a technology and professional-services provider and a joint venture between Microsoft and Accenture. She’s on the firm’s leadership track and is one of two women on a 10-person council that’s creating a leadership path for Avanade employees who, like her, love the technical aspect of the business and want to rise to management. Of the 22 women in her master’s graduating class, she is one of only a handful of her fellow woman classmates still working as technologists, and one of three in leadership roles.
The State of women in engineering
The Leaky Tech Pipeline
As the experiences of Gandhi and others illustrate, women do pursue careers in technology. Fifty-six percent of the students in undergraduate computer science programs are women, according to The Leaky Tech Pipeline, a set of data compiled by Oakland, California-based Kapor Center, an organization dedicated to improving diversity and inclusion in tech.
Yet something happens as these young computer scientists travel the career path. Only 20 percent of women who start a bachelor’s degree course graduate; 32 percent complete a master’s degree, and 22 percent earn a Ph.D., according to Kapor Center research.
Kapor Center data shows that the erosion continues as women graduate and take jobs. Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 36 percent of the workforce at high-tech firms, and just 26 percent of the workforce in computing and math occupations. In the world of startups, 17 percent of founders are women, 18 percent of investors are women, and a mere 13 percent of founders with equity are women.
Women leave tech at a rate of about 56 percent, according to Women Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to getting more women into tech roles. “We see women who are excited and ambitious about their careers in software engineering,” said Alaina Percival, the organization’s CEO and co-founder. “And they see immediate barriers.” Women interviewed for this article point out just a few of those barriers: Recruiters who try to talk them out of technologist roles. A work environment that is less than welcoming, if not downright hostile. Searches for senior leadership that overlook them.
Gender equality in tech is a moral imperative, not to mention a sound business decision: More women on the job means a better product. “I think [women are] better listeners, and they can emotionally connect with the customer better than male programmers,” said Thomas Parkinson, co-founder of grocery shopping and delivery app Peapod and more recently Sifter, an app that helps people grocery shop according to their dietary preferences. The team of eight developers at Chicago-based Sifter includes two women, and Parkinson wants that number to be higher. “Let’s say it’s 50 percent women that use my new product,” he said. “I need that represented on my development team, on my product team, etc. If it’s just men, it’s just their point of view going into my product, and that’s not going to make me a great product.”
To get and keep more women in tech roles, the industry must address each section of the workforce pipeline: Education, recruiting, retaining and promoting, and, finally, supporting women in launching their own firms.
Let’s Start With Education
Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Kode With Klossy, a coding camp set up by former fashion model Karli Kloss, Codeverse, and the Girl Scouts are just a handful of organizations dedicated to engaging girls and young women in tech careers.
Girl Scouts of the USA, which has 1.7 million girls enrolled in troops around the country, offers computer science badges for girls ages kindergarten through 12th grade. For instance, Coding for Good includes coding basics, digital game design, and app development badges; cybersecurity badges teach the basics and safeguards and cybersecurity investigator skills; and the Think Like a Programmer Journey teaches girls computational thinking, which they apply to a sustainable project in their community. In 2020, more than 89,000 girls earned badges for Think Like a Programmer, Coding for Good, and Cybersecurity, compared with 35,400 in 2019. The number of earned Cybersecurity badges for girls ages kindergarten through first grade rose 59 percent, to 13,500 last year from 8,000 the year prior.
As girls become young women, though, several factors dissuade some from continuing their computer-science education. GG Guitart, a UI software engineer at Sifter, has a degree in manufacturing and design engineering. During several classes, she was one of maybe five women in a class of 50 men. “There are definitely these obvious points during a woman’s career when you realize you’re definitely in the minority,” she said. Guitart didn’t consider software engineering as a career until she attended a coding bootcamp after graduation. “It’s really all about having the right people to talk to and the mentors,” she said.
She added that more students might be attracted to software engineering if it were framed not as computer science but as “problem solving,” a phrase that is more inviting and more accurately describes the work. Katy Lynch, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Codeverse, a coding camp for kids, agrees.
“Coding is all about creativity and bringing your ideas to life on a computer screen,” Lynch said. “Kids are naturally curious and learn best by doing, which is exactly why they learn to code through designing and creating games and apps.”
Some parents have told Lynch that a certain type of coding class can prove daunting for girls and boys alike because the classes focus too heavily on memorization and studying and not enough on creativity and building. “It’s like making a child learn music theory before sitting down at the piano, or studying linguistics before learning a language,” Lynch said. “The best tech instruction is actually getting to build cool stuff.”
Internships also play a key role in keeping women on the tech career track. For the past four years Kargo, a New York-based digital advertising firm, has offered paid internships to five women in their first or second year of computer science studies at City University of New York. The interns, who work at Kargo during the January academic break, focus on building software, creating professional networks, and improving technical skills. The first group of interns is just entering the job market, and Kargo hopes to hire one or two over the next several years. It’s a triple win: The interns gain experience, Kargo engineers have the opportunity to mentor and give back, and the interns’ input adds value to the company. “Women add diversity to the team and bring fresh ideas to engineering,” said Harry Kargman, CEO and founder. “We all benefit from a different point of view.”
Recruiting Is a Foot in the Door
Avanade, where Geetha Gandhi works, employs about 39,000 people globally, 4,000 of whom are engineers. Nineteen percent of its engineers are women, a 27 percent increase over the last three years, according to company data.
In fiscal 2020, 31.2 percent of Avanade’s onshore hires were women; its goal is gender parity with new hires within five years. “It’s really imperative that you don’t have groups of like-minded individuals answering the questions the same way or thinking the same way,” said Paul Phillips, head of global talent acquisition at Avanade. “Diversity of thought is incredibly important in terms of getting the best solutions and driving the best experiences for our clients and their customers.” The firm began taking steps to reach gender hiring parity about five years ago; Pam Maynard, who was named Avanade CEO in 2019, has accelerated the efforts.
One big step: The company has “gender decoded” job ads in order to recruit and hire more women. Avanade had discovered that men apply for a job having only 50 percent to 60 percent of the qualifications listed, while women apply only if they have 80 percent to 90 percent of the qualifications.
To attract more candidates, the company rewrote ads to focus on skills and an individual’s potential, rather than a certain pedigree or specific qualifications. It used Textio, an augmented writing software, to find and change gender-specific words and phrases. Phillips pointed to “business requirements” and “technical skills” as examples of male-toned phrases, compared with “nurture” or “team members” as not so heavily male phrases. Textio suggested words that would populate job ads with a greater mix of feminine- and masculine-toned words, thus rendering the ads more gender-neutral.
The ads are shorter too. “Job descriptions are very detail-oriented, the profiles you have when you join a company,” Phillips said. “The job ad should attract talent and pique people’s interest. It doesn’t go into the same level of minutiae.”
In other recruiting moves, Avanade has offered double referral bonuses during certain time periods, for instance March, which is Women’s History Month, to employees who bring in successful women candidates. It has also seen “very, very positive impacts” with training academies for women who have fewer than three years experience in the workplace. “We actually invest in their development and make them ready for the working world,” Phillips said. The company plans an academy this year in Brazil, and plans to hire 200 women there. All told, the initiatives have boosted the number of women in the talent pipeline by about 50 percent, Phillips said.
Climbing the Career Ladder
To retain talent, Avanade has installed flexible work hours for all employees. It is piloting an alternative work week, during which employees spread work-week hours over four days a week or nine days over two weeks. It has a global Women’s Network with more than 1,200 members and a series of webcasts called Pathways to Success, in which internal and external speakers share their professional insights and career paths. It also has a leadership program for 25 high-potential women, who are twice as likely to get promoted within two years.
Cognizant Softvision, the Teaneck, New Jersey-based software product engineering arm of Cognizant, has roughly 3,220 engineers, 30 percent of which are women. Last year, the company began gathering data on the number of women it hired, retention rates for those women, and women promoted into leadership roles in order to fine-tune its approach to recruiting and retaining women engineers.
It also relaunched its Women’s Guild, a three-year-old resource group, to help improve the experience of women throughout the company, as well as provide career growth and leadership development for them. “We wanted to make it better in terms of engagement,” said Fausta Ballesteros, vice president of marketing and communications at the firm and leader of the Women’s Guild. In addition to helping women envision a path to leadership at the firm, the Guild gives women space to share stories. For instance, the group created a Zoom photo exhibition around the pandemic-induced “new normal,” showing women employees working and caring for themselves and others as they worked from home.
The company said that early engagement numbers from women engineers have proved promising. Last year, Cognizant Softvision delivered 133 talks and presentations during Programmers’ Week, its annual week-long celebration centered on emerging technologies and client services. Women engineers from Cognizant delivered 34 percent of the presentations, more than double 2019’s number. The organization said it is exploring ways to use the Women’s Guild to recruit more women software engineers globally.
Along similar lines, OneLogin, an identity and access-management firm based in San Francisco, recently launched a new program that focuses on investing in and retaining women engineers and engaging them in the referral process. Just more than 10 percent of its current staff of engineers are women, and retention has hovered around 90 percent annually for the last three years, said Bob Dickinson, CTO at OneLogin, which has 282 employees.
The company hires from both traditional engineering programs and from bootcamps in order to hire a more diverse crew. “Especially in engineering, that diversity drives innovation and creative problem solving,” Dickinson said. “If your engineering workforce is made up entirely of guys from the same backgrounds who went to the same schools and got the same degrees, the additive value of each incremental carbon copy of that engineer in those areas around innovation and creativity — that is, seeing solutions someone else doesn’t see — diminishes,” he said.
Dickinson talked to women engineers at the beginning of the year to make sure they felt supported in their work environment and comfortable in referring other women engineers to work at OneLogin. A woman engineer is included in all the interview stages for women candidates, and will soon be part of the interview squad for all new engineering hires. The company established a chat channel and monthly meeting for women engineers to share and address concerns.
OneLogin also compiled quantifiable data to make sure men and women engineers are paid equally for the same level of work and tenure at the firm, thus addressing another inequity: Women in tech still bring home smaller paychecks than men. The 2020 DevOps Salary Report conducted by Puppet, a Portland, Oregon-based IT automation firm, shows that 25 percent of women in tech earn between $100,000 and $125,000 a year, compared with 18 percent of men. The numbers shift as the paychecks grow bigger: Twelve percent of men surveyed earn $125,000 to $150,000, compared with 9 percent of women. Only 1 percent of women earn north of $250,000 a year, compared with 3 percent of men surveyed.
Women Founders and a Cultural Shift
“Having more women founders will set an example to other women that they can be leaders, too,” said Eropa Stein, founder and CEO at Hyre, a Toronto-based startup that handles staffing and scheduling for firms. “Women founders can create a culture that empowers other women to reach new heights,” Stein added. “While all leaders should be inclusive, women, in particular, can pave the way for other women.”
More women-led startups also have the potential to create a seismic culture shift in the industry. “Fifty percent or more of the reason I started Transposit is the desire to prove out that you can build a tech culture in a different way,” said Tina Huang, founder and CTO at Transposit, a San Francisco-based DevOps process orchestration firm. Huang, who has a computer science degree from MIT, worked at Apple, Google, and Twitter, as well as a few smaller companies, before starting Transposit in 2016.
The firm employs 37 people, 16 of whom are women, including the CEO. At Transposit, “men have to learn to adapt to women’s communication styles, as much as the inverse, and they’re able to get mentorship in a way that is unique and differentiated,” said Huang, who believes that an industry-wide culture shift could encourage women to stay in the field. “I’ve seen women opt out because, over time, they get frustrated,” Huang said. “They’re at companies where they’re hitting a glass ceiling and they can’t move forward. And they think: ‘Why am I continuing to beat my head against the wall? Why don’t I just focus on these other parts of my life?’”
When more founders are women and people of color, a different culture will emerge, Huang said. “At scale, it can actually impact and influence the industry beyond the company itself, and that’s where we’ll start to see real change.”
Wanted: More Advocates
When more women are employed in technologist roles, happily ascending the career ladder, and eagerly launching their own firms, they will advocate for computer science as a stellar career choice. And that cheerleading will also work wonders in attracting women to tech.
“We do not have a lot of what I call second-generation women — women who are convinced to go into this field by a sister or a mother,” said Kate Heddleston, engineering manager at a digital fleet-management firm based in San Francisco. During her 10-plus years in the field, Heddleston has been asked to consider a role in marketing, despite holding a master’s degree in computer science from Stanford. She’s been kissed by male colleagues without her consent and ignored in VC meetings even when she was the person who created the company in search of funding.
Yet she stayed in the field. “I really love the work, and I wasn’t about to be driven out of a field that I really liked,” Heddleston said. “And there’s a lot of power in being able to build technology at a time when technology is hugely shaping the world.”
During research for her honors thesis, on women in computer science, Heddleston asked 600 women how they got into the field. Many said that a brother or father recommended it. Very few said that a sister or mother recommended it. “I met several women who said ‘Yeah, my mom was a programmer and she really hated the gender inequality,” Heddleston said. “It’s hard to cheerlead for a field you left.”
Tech’s homework assignment, due ASAP, is clear. Recruit more women. Hire more women. Promote more women. Fund more women-led ventures. And in doing so, shape an industry that’s even more creative, productive, lucrative — and inclusive.