Computing Profession

Battling Bias

The logo of GHC/1.
A regional Grace Hopper Celebration event this week focused on “advancing a gender diverse technology workforce in New York.”

ABI (dot) NY, a local hub of the Anita Borg Institute (ABI), this week staged its inaugural GHC/1, a regional variant of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) aimed at providing mentoring and networking opportunities to STEM-minded women in the New York City area.

The event, which sold out on the first day tickets were available, was attended by approximately 370 people (including, by my unofficial count, about 10 men), of whom about 40 percent were students, with the balance academics and industry practitioners, many of whom were looking to bring more young women into their IT hiring pipelines.

Held at the Time Life building in New York City, the event also tried to "highlight New York as a technology hub," said Time Inc. vice president Linda Apsley, who also served as programming lead for GHC/1. ABI CEO and president Telle Whitney, who also was co-founder of GHC, said New York City "is just vibrant with opportunities, but also with technology innovation."

As evidence of the tech employment opportunities available in the Big Apple, the event’s sponsors set up a career fair to educate attendees on the types of jobs they’re seeking to fill, and to try to hire as many smart, capable women as they could. In one discussion, a panelist asked the professionals in the room how many of them were in attendance specifically for recruitment purposes; more than half the room raised their hands.

The underlying need for the event, as well as for ABI and GHC, can be seen in the gender imbalance in hiring for STEM occupations, and the disparity in pay that women receive if they make it into those professions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) December 2014 publication "Highlights of women’s earnings in 2013" provides the most recent data available, which shows women, for example, held 163,000 (about 29%) of 570,000 U.S. jobs that the BLS defines as "computer and information systems managers," earning 87.6% of what their male counterparts were paid. In all "computer and mathematical occupations," BLS found women holding roughly a third of those positions (928,000, compared to 2.7 million men), with women earning roughly 80% of what men do in similar jobs.

In comparison, back in 1998, BLS found 438,000 women and 1.1 million men were working as "mathematical and computer scientists;" women made up about 28.4% of the category, and earned 87.1% of what men in their arena were paid.

For further perspective, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, women have grown from about 38% of the U.S. workforce in 1970 (31.5 million) to about 47% of the workforce in 2012 (72.6 million). In 2012, 38% of women in the labor force held college degrees (compared to 34.6% of men), but women in 2012 earned about 81% of what men did.

And women, of course, make up 51% of the U.S. population.

Many people cite individual instances that they say provide insight into some of the basis for the ongoing disparity.

Some young women are discouraged from taking computer science, programming, game design, or other STEM-related classes by advisors, teachers, male students, and/or their own parents, who say they "don’t belong" in such classes because they typically are predominantly male. This "boys club" mentality may be surprising to some, but it still happens far too frequently (one example was given at the event by a young woman who said she was discouraged from taking a class on game development because "girls aren’t gamers").

Some young women have great support systems and make it through school only to run into the "brogrammer" culture on the job, where the childish, churlish, inappropriate atmosphere wears them down over time to the point where they leave the industry.  Research published in Fortune last year found 27% of women respondents cited workplace culture as a reason for leaving jobs in the technology industry.

Some women make it through school, get a good job in industry, and then take time off to start a family, and when they try to come back are told their knowledge and skills are "out of date." That research in Forbes cited above found 68% of respondents cited "motherhood" as a reason they left a tech job. 

In each of these instances and many more, support is key. Through ABI, GHC, and organizations like ACM-W  and NCWIT, young women can find encouragement through mentors and colleagues. They can learn strategies for dealing with the bias (conscious and otherwise) that they continue to run into in school and the workplace. They can find women in academia and on the job that have been through the same situations, who can help them cope. These days, they often can find women in their own companies who can provide useful guidance and counsel, rather than the "it’s your problem, you deal with it" mentality that many women in technology have had to face.

Anne Krook, owner and principal of Practical Workplace Advice and author of "Now What Do I Say?" put it best when describing the goal of GHC/1, and ultimately of all these organizations, when she said the aim was not just to increase the numbers of women in STEM; "we want them to succeed and thrive."

Lawrence M. Fisher is Senior Editor/News for ACM magazines.

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