Priming the Pipeline for Women in Computing

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 6, 2007 — Katie Messerly relishes her role as a program manager in Microsoft’s Live Labs initiative, a cross-company effort bringing together leading-edge researchers and product teams toward developing next-generation internet products and services.

Lucy Sanders, CEO of NCWIT, shares a joke with Microsoft’s Ray Ozzie and delegates at NCWIT’s bi-annual conference co-hosted by Microsoft. 

“I’m one of two program managers for a team of 15 people,” says Messerly, a 23-year-old University of Texas graduate. “There’s lots of decision-making about [product] design and vision and the release schedule, then working through execution, running around talking to people and having design discussions.”

It’s a far cry from the stereotype of computer scientists as pallid – invariably male – programmers sitting alone in their cubicle pounding out code all day.

Still, young women like Messerly represent an all-too-few number in computer science, crystallizing an alarming under-representation of females that is thrown into even sharper relief by the strides made by women in other fields.

Overall, 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees now go to women, and in the workplace, women now occupy 56 percent of professional positions. Yet, confounding progress elsewhere, women represent a distinct minority in computing and IT – and, most disconcerting of all, a shrinking one by some measures.

Women hold just 27 percent of computing-related professional positions. At senior levels they’re scarcer still, representing approximately 5 percent and 15 percent of chief technical officers and chief information officers, respectively, in the leading 100 Fortune 500 firms.

Moreover the future looks even bleaker unless matters are urgently taken in hand. While girls made up 56 percent of all Advanced Placement exam-takers in 2006, they accounted for less than 15 percent of those taking the computer science subject test. And just 28 percent of computer science degrees awarded last year went to women, compared to 45 percent of math degrees, 52 percent in chemistry, and 62 percent of biology degrees.

This hasn’t always been the case. Bucking the wider trend, female representation in the category of computer and information science studies has actually gone backwards. Last year, women earned 21 percent of degrees in this field, versus 36 percent in 1983.

Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie addresses this week’s NCWIT’s conference, hosted by Microsoft and the University of Washington.

It’s a situation that led social scientists Jane Margolis of UCLA and Janice Stockard of Harvard to conclude in a recent research paper that, “the fields of IT and computer science have in effect become gendered ‘male.’”

The issue will be front and center at the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s (NCWIT) bi-annual conference convening this week at Microsoft’s Redmond campus and the nearby University of Washington. Signifying the company’s commitment to advancing women in computing, delegates at this week’s NCWIT conference will be formally welcomed by Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie.

An umbrella group for more than 100 leading corporations, universities and government agencies launched in 2003, NCWIT hopes to be a catalyst for dramatically increasing women’s presence in computing and priming the pipeline of future female computer scientists, by putting outreach — previously largely confined to laudable but piecemeal efforts — on a coordinated and research-driven footing in order to identify best practice and have maximum impact.

Co-hosting the conference builds on Microsoft’s four-year US$1 million commitment to NCWIT.

“We want to do things in a large, systematic way,” explains Jane Prey, academic program manager with Microsoft Research, who helped arrange the grant.

“There’s never been an organization that’s tried to bring together all minds and create collaboration,” adds Sean Kelley, diversity director for Microsoft’s global sales and marketing group. “We’re all working towards common goals; we’re just not very coordinated. NCWIT [will] standardize how we solve problems.”

“For us, it’s about partnership. We have issues that other companies share. It’s not about Microsoft, it’s about the vitality of the industry,” says Kelley.

“Microsoft realizes they have to move the needle nationally,” says NCWIT co-founder and CEO Lucy Sanders, a former vice-president at Bell Labs, where she was a Bell Labs Fellow, and a self-confessed technology maven with six patents to her name.

The stakes are high. The dearth of women in IT leaves a gaping vacuum at the heart of technology design. “That’s a huge problem,” says Prey. “Men don’t use products in the same way as women.”

Remedying this situation lies at the core of NCWIT’s mission. “The reason that this matters is because of the point of view women bring to innovation,” says Sanders. “Think about how pervasive computing is in our lives. If women are not helping to invent it, we’re not going to get technology that’s as well-rounded as it could be.”

The need to effect change is perhaps made even more acute by the fact that women represent an increasing force in the marketplace, leading the way in the purchase of home computers for instance.

“In computer science, we’re engineering systems for the whole population,” says professor Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “Every one of us brings our own personal baggage to any system we design. If all computers are designed by fully able 40-year-old white males, they’ll be built to be used by fully able 40-year-old white males.”

It’s an argument that should resonate widely as enlightened self-interest if nothing else, Lazowska says. “A diverse workforce [makes for] a better engineered artifact,” he says.

Research conducted by NCWIT earlier this year points to the hybrid vigor generated by diversity. The study of patents, a key yardstick of innovation, found that those awarded to mixed-gender teams were cited far more widely than patents given to single-sex teams – an indicator of their wider influence and applicability.

Experts are wary of overgeneralization and gender stereotyping, but some add that as well as novel design perspectives, women can bring fresh interpersonal and management styles. Reaching out to women also represents prudent planning in securing a critical underutilized infusion of talent amid a chronic general IT skills shortage.

“If we’re all, as companies, competing for a small pie, organizations like NCWIT expand the pie for all of us,” says Kelley.

IT jobs will continue to be one of the chief growth engines of the U.S. economy, accounting for three of the 10 fastest-growing occupations from 2004 through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But there are additional gender-specific factors that may explain why many young women, in particular, are being lost to computer science.

For starters, many people’s first exposure to the field is via videogames, an overwhelmingly male activity, notes Lazowska. Indeed old stereotypes of computing as the preserve of male geeks die hard. “The geeky image is unappealing to men and women,” says Sanders.

But the image it evokes may be particularly off-putting for women, conjuring the specter of a computing career as a solitary grind of coding with few social outlets, notes Lazowska.

“Even entry-level programmers only spend one-third of their day [coding],” points out Lazowska. Such is the sophistication of today’s programs, they are by necessity team efforts involving copious collaboration, he says. “There is historical reality to the overweight guy eating Mars bars at his screen, but it’s not what [companies] are about today.”

That the myth continues to holds sway may owe something to widespread lack of awareness about what computer science entails. One 2006 poll found for instance that just 2 percent of high school calculus students actually knew what a computer science major studies.

Prey lays some of the blame at the door of industry for not getting the word out about the intellectual challenge, creativity, social value, ability to touch people’s lives, and fun of a career in computing. “We’ve never told people how fun and important computing is and the intrinsic value of it,” she says.

Social utility may be particularly important to women, Lazowska suggests. But students could be forgiven for not being aware of these things from the tenor of high school computing and freshmen classes. Introductory computer science courses tend to be narrowly theoretical, focusing almost exclusively on programming, experts say, omitting any sense of how computing fits into the big picture of solving real-life issues.

Sanders proposes reforming computer science instruction to make it more “inclusive of everybody” by “starting at the top and working down, saying, ‘Here are the problems, here are the possibilities we could invent. How could a machine be brought to bear to solve this?’ That’s the beauty of computing: putting ideas into motion.”

Another fallacy that hurts female entry into computing, Lazowska adds, is the notion that you have to come to it early to make a career in it and that after the window of programming at school is closed, you’ve missed the boat. “Most young women don’t program in school and counselors tell them, ‘don’t pursue computer science in college.’ This is dead false.”

Efforts to promote greater female and minority presence in computing also face the “law of low numbers,” says Sanders. “When you don’t see very many people like you doing things, you might draw the conclusion that this is not for you.”

It’s an issue keenly felt by Miya McClain, a software design engineer at Microsoft.

“It’s a lot easier to see yourself in a role when you see someone else who looks like you in that same role,” says McClain, 23, who hopes she can serve as a “positive role model and inspiration” for other African American women, who currently compose just 4 percent of U.S. computer scientists. “There are few women in technology and there are even fewer African American ones. I want girls to know it is possible to go into a mostly male environment and not only succeed but be the best.”

Meanwhile companies can’t just sit back and wait for women to come to them, they must proactively engage with prospective recruits and be sensitized to and educate managers about the unique challenges women may face.

“If you’re a women in a technical research lab you [can often be] the only one,” says Kelley. [There’s] this cultural isolation that can occur. Paying attention to that is really important.”

Feeling outnumbered can be corrosive and confidence sapping, leading people to become more risk averse and prone to self-doubt, but this should be viewed as a function of being a minority rather than taken for an inherent characteristic, and managed accordingly, says Sanders. “As managers, we need to understand these things and not jump to conclusions that women don’t want to take risks. Encouragement is especially important.”

How technology teams can get the most from women will be a focus of this week’s conference, says Sanders. “Diversity informs innovation, [but it] also has to be managed well: you can’t throw diverse people onto a team and leave them alone.”

Companies also need to pay attention to creating a more female-friendly workplace. As well as sponsoring national initiatives like NCWIT, Microsoft has looked within, says Kelley, offering mentoring for new hires, flexible work schedules, options for telecommuting, a range of generous healthcare and family and child-oriented benefits, and a more-than 10,000-strong Women at Microsoft employee affinity group.

Last month, more than 4,000 women from across the company gathered for Microsoft’s 5th global women’s leadership and development conference, while outreach programs like DigiGirlz Day and the weeklong DigiGirlz Camps are intended to give girls a hands-on introduction to careers in high-tech.

Such programs have earned Microsoft a spot on Working Mother magazine’s “100 Best companies,” for the past five years running. Other accolades include number 31 on Fortune magazine’s 2007 “100 top MBA Employers for Women,” and a place on The Times of London’s “Top 50 Places Where Women Want to Work,” last month.

“We’ve had a very strong focus on our own internal culture and evolving to become more inclusive, which we think becomes the anchor for recruiting,” says Kelley. “Happy employees are the best recruiting device we have.”

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