Girls Who Code

In a field long dominated by men, explosion in careers gives women unique opportunities

By Aliah D. Wright Sep 28, 2015
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Eames Katya crop.jpgKatya Eames, right, isn’t your typical 17-year-old high school dropout.

She learned to code as a sophomore in high school. And she already has what many would consider a dream job: She works for Google where she’s helping with documentation on Angular 2, a library composed of code for building browser applications. She also works for an online web development training company called Pluralsight where “I go to local elementary schools [in Utah] and talk to the kids about programming.”

Katya is among a growing number of young women who are pursuing careers in computer programming—a field that has exploded in recent years with the advent of code writing.

Apps, browsers, computer software, social media sites, even the website you’re reading this article on—are all made possible by computer coding.

Coding is also quite lucrative.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, the median salary for a computer programmer is $74,000 annually, or $35 an hour. Female coders interviewed for this story said they’ve seen salaries top well over six figures.

According to Forbes, computer engineering, software design and computer programming were listed as the degrees that led to the second, third and fourth highest-salaried jobs for new graduates in 2015. Individuals in the computer science field can earn about $3.1 million during their lifetime, according to USA Today.

While the pay is good for workers, unfortunately for employers, there are far more jobs than skilled people to work in them. Most of those jobs are held by men.

In fact, the statistics are startling: According to the Department of Labor, in five years there will be 1.4 million job openings for computer specialists. Yet, universities are predicted to produce only enough qualified graduates to fill 29 percent of those jobs. And while 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, just 12 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women. What’s more, while women make up half of the U.S. workforce, just 27 percent of the jobs in technical or computing fields are held by women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Enter such groups as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and Year Up.

During a technology panel discussion held in Virginia earlier this summer, San Francisco-based Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant said “there are estimated to be 1.5 million STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]-related jobs in five years. But here in the U.S., we’re only able to fill about 70 percent of those jobs.” Her four-year-old initiative is designed to increase the number of female minority coders and prepare the next generation to fill those roles.

“The work we’re doing will [bridge] the digital divide,” she said.

Tech Companies Step In

In addition to coding initiatives like Bryant’s, several companies are trying to increase the number of women in technology.

In 2014, Google committed $50 million to its female-focused Made with Code initiative, and another $150 million in 2015 to increase diversity at the tech company. In January, computer company Intel pledged $300 million to its Diversity in Technology Initiative, designed to recruit and train women and other groups of underrepresented individuals in engineering and computer science fields. Apple, too, pledged $50 million earlier this spring to increase the numbers of minorities, women and veterans in tech positions.

“Many women have stepped up to take on leadership roles in technology, including Ginni Rometty, the chairman, president and CEO of IBM; and Megan Smith, the United States chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy,” said Jennifer Shin, founder of 8 Path Solutions LLC, a data science, analytics and technology company based in New York City. While commitments from tech firms will help, Shin believes this only goes so far.

“These programs can provide girls exposure to programming and teach technical skills, but exposure alone may not be enough to drastically improve the number of women who enter the field,” Shin said in an interview with SHRM Online. “Also, while more women may learn technical skills, these girls will need to continue coding either in school or at work for several years before being able to enter the field.”

In a 2014 study, the Society for Human Resource Management revealed that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of organizations complained that job candidates did not have the necessary technical skills.

Blame the ‘Bro-Grammers’

Some attribute the dearth of women in technology not to discrimination but to a “frat mentality” or “bro-grammer culture”—one ruled by machismo.

Despite the numbers, some women dispute this.

“I have worked in multiple tech companies from startups to established corporate environments and I have never encountered this idea of a 'frat mentality,’ ” said Stefanie Warzecha, co-founder of Detroit-based computer software firm backstitch.

“Personally, I think the hardest thing is this self-imposed mindset that we've adopted as women that it is difficult to work in tech because we’re women. When you keep perpetuating this notion, it’s working to kill interest in a field based on the sole idea that it is ‘socially difficult.’ ”

Some women in the field say it’s not so much the bro-grammer culture as it is the lack of support, flexibility and understanding.

Jeanine Swatton, director of developer evangelism at Yodlee, a Redwood City, Calif.-based computer software firm, said that it’s hard being in an industry with so few women. Swatton, an engineer and self-described evangelist, has also taught coding courses at several universities. “Having a female engineer mentor is helpful to navigate the waters of the engineering culture,” which is sometimes known as a “geek culture,” where workers are often described as socially awkward and bookish.

“In the areas where I have worked, there were more men than women. [But] I am seeing that change significantly—especially in the startup space,” Swatton said. “While I was teaching, there were only 10 percent women in my classes. Overall, I am seeing more efforts done by startups and companies alike to increase the number of women in technology.”

Shin agreed:

“There are many women who stay in technology because that’s where they feel they fit in, as well as many successful women who have become CEOs of tech companies,” she said. “So we need to be cautious not to assume that the belief of one person, or even a handful of people, is representative of the experience of all women in tech.”

Code Early and Often

Advocates of increasing the number of women in tech say the best way to encourage women to enter the field is to get them coding early.

“There are many states that are behind in terms of getting coding and technology education in the schools,” said Bryant. “All the states in the union need to [begin teaching coding] as early as first grade.”

In Eames’ case, it’s a field she entered with relish.

Her father is a programmer and encouraged her to try coding. This past summer, Eames was selected to speak at one of the largest gatherings of web developers, ng-conf, held annually in Salt Lake City. She also attended an event where she taught Utah Governor Gary Herbert how to code.

For now, she told SHRM Online, she’s working, going to the Utah-based code school Dev Mountain and intends to finish high school—eventually.

“I haven't yet started online high school, as I'm focusing on furthering my knowledge of code first,” she said. “But from what I've seen of the available online high schools, I think it's something I'll be able to handle.”

And she’s not worried about missing homecoming dances, football games or the senior prom.

“I was never one for football, and the only sports events I went to for my school were the ones I was dragged to by family and friends.”

Eames said anyone entering the field needs “to be willing to continue learning. Technology is always changing,” and adapting is critical. “You never know everything there is to know when you're a programmer.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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