Tech Firms Failing in Their Outreach to Women

Posted: 4/9/2012

By: Katie Hafner
April 9, 2012 8:28AM

Attracting women to computer science jobs at technology firms isn't easy, even though computer science degrees go to, on average, 18 percent women. Part of the problem, say those familiar with the hiring process, is with the recruiting itself. Some women are put off when they go for interviews and are interviewed only by men and a male culture.

When educators speak of women in computer science, they often refer to the "pipeline," which tends to start in secondary school and wind its way through graduate studies.

Along the way, the pipeline becomes increasingly porous, losing women at a discouraging rate. By the time it reaches the workplace, the pipeline has become a veritable sieve.

Even a degree in computer science is not enough to propel some women into programming jobs. Computer science degrees go to 18 percent of women, on average, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 19 percent of women in the United States hold jobs as software developers. But experts say that at many prominent technology firms, where coding is king, the percentage of female programmers is in the single digits.

Part of the problem, say those familiar with the hiring process, is with the recruiting itself. Some women are put off when they go for interviews and are interviewed only by men. And some companies hold 24-hour "hackathons" for recruits, reinforcing the profession's geeky, high-testosterone stereotype.

"There's a bias in the system," said Madeline Heilman, a psychologist at New York University who studies gender roles. "It affects women's willingness to go into these situations because they know what they're in for."

Dr. Heilman continued: "There's the perception that women somehow don't have the right stuff to fulfill these roles and that colors everything. It's very hard to crack, and has consequences for selection, promotion and task assignment."

Yet as with the effort to attract more women to undergraduate computer science programs, there are signs of hope in the corporate world.

Two years ago, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology in Palo Alto, California, began a competition to award the "Top Company for Technical Women." I.B.M. won in 2011, and the institute recently announced that American Express -- with women representing 30 percent of its technical employees -- will receive the 2012 award.

"Women will go where they feel there's an open and welcoming culture," said Sharon Nunes, a vice president at I.B.M. who has worked to recruit and retain women. About 20 percent of I.B.M.'s technical work force is now female.

Dr. Nunes and others say women want to go beyond programming. "They're attracted to areas where they can apply their skill to making a difference," Dr. Nunes said. Women also expect to be able to maintain a work-life balance, she added. "We have a lot in place to help women juggle life and career."

Stephen Cooper, a computer scientist at Stanford University, agreed. "Companies need to provide things women specifically want, such as child care," he said. He pointed out that at Facebook, where the number of female programmers is especially low, there is no child care, and although Google provides child care, there is a waiting list.

"More companies need to do their share to change things," Mr. Cooper said. "Clearly when the bellwethers do it, others will look closely at it."

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, said there was growing recognition in the industry "that good women bring something to the table." It is not, she said, "that it's better than what men bring, but that the combination is really good."

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