iSchool Informatics program helps to narrow tech gender gap

When a BBC interviewer recently asked a group of high-school girls if they’d be comfortable working in technology, they answered adamantly, unanimously: “No.” Commented one: “It’s not really a woman’s field.” Statistically speaking, that statement is true. It should be a woman’s field. It used to be a woman’s field. But in 2015 numbers show that it is not, and that many women no longer feel they belong in it.

“That has really changed over the last decades in a direction we would not want it to go,” says University of Washington iSchool Assistant Professor Katie Davis.

While women are major consumers of technology, they hold only a quarter of professional computing jobs today, down almost 10 percent from 1990. The gap widens on the way up the ladder: Women occupy fewer than 6 percent of CIO (Chief Information Officer) positions. And while some 50 percent of game users are women, only 4 percent of the people who code games are.  

The field, say some observers, has become a white-dominated “boys club.” “Women, racial minorities, people with different cognitive and physical abilities, their needs are not being met by the design limitations of this homogenous group,” says iSchool Assistant Professor Negin Dahya.

The UW iSchool is working hard to change the makeup of that group. As part of a strategic three-year plan, it is heavily recruiting women applicants for its undergraduate Informatics major, and doing so with marked success. In just one academic year, the number of female admissions has jumped from 30 percent to an impressive 40 percent, far above national averages.

The school’s commitment to gender equity extends to hiring, as well. The faculty is almost 50 percent female, and that’s no accident. More women mean more women role models. “The iSchool really puts its money where its mouth is,” says Dahya. “These are real things that change the dynamics of the workforce.”

Informatics – launched at the iSchool in 2000 – is a creative, multidisciplinary program that explores not only technology but the ways it impacts human experience. Students design everything from cybersecurity systems to mobile technologies and social media innovations. “It is a high-tech, high-touch field that puts information technology – computers, the Internet, devices – to work to make things better for the workplace, for society, and to improve our individual lives,” says Informatics program chair Scott Barker, who has helped lead recruitment initiatives. “It’s important for women to be full participants in creating the technological solutions of tomorrow.”

iSchool recruiting efforts include a new INFO 102 “Gender and Information Technology” introductory course taught by Dahya. The course examines the history of women in computing – including the many female programming pioneers who emerged from the World War II, Rosie the Riveter era – and shines a light on issues at play in the current demographic meltdown. “We address the underlying societal problems related to patriarchy, femininity, masculinity, our social contracts and how they affect the technology workforce,” says Dahya. “It’s proving to be a very timely and relevant issue for both women and men.”

In fact, men now comprise about 35-40 percent of INFO 102 class enrollment, which has, over just three quarters, jumped from 21 to 139 students.

Gender issues are now woven into all courses in Informatics, a program centered on teamwork; the more diverse the team, the better.  “In Informatics, they engrave that in your brain,” says recent program graduate Jessalyn Cheng, who wanted to be a doctor until she discovered Informatics. “I realized that I was interested in product management and user-experience (UX) design within software development.”

The students she met sealed the deal.  “Everyone was so friendly in Informatics, it was almost scary, but I felt like I belonged. People were so passionate about what they were doing.” 

Cheng, recently hired as a technical project manager at AT&T, has been a self-described “cheerleader for Informatics,” serving as past president of WINFO, Women in Informatics. The student group was formed in 2012 to draw more women into the program. Its members help with the forms, essays, resumes, and coursework requirements needed to apply for Informatics. They put together networking sessions and panels with strong women figures – including females in the testosterone-fueled gaming industry.

They also help students strategize on ways to enter the tech pipeline, connect them with recruiters and human resource personnel, organize an annual women’s hackathon, and arrange tours to tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. “This is a great way to see a company, meet the people, and imagine yourself possibly working there,” says Davis, faculty adviser for WINFO.

No one is posting a “girl’s only” sign on this club door, either. Every year, more men join WINFO ranks. “We’re trying to emphasize that this is for anyone who believes in this cause,” says current president Alice Yan, a program senior. “We need everyone to understand that this is a problem and we all have to work together on it.”

Another group lending support is Tech++, founded by Informatics students Simrat Singh and Makenzie Pletcher. Its goal is to help women capitalize on technology in whatever field they choose –fashion or law, business or medicine. “Ultimately coding, or HTML, or whatever basic language you use is going to be vital to be a competitive applicant in any field,” says Singh. “We want to provide women resources and give them that edge.”

A top priority for Tech++ is developing mentorship programs. “Research has proven that we need role models,” says Singh, “but there are not that many women in technology right now to look up to.”

There won’t be in the future, either, unless universities start increasing the numbers of women tackling tech studies. In 2013, only 18 percent of computer and information bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Interestingly, some three decades earlier, the number was closer to 37 percent.

The “why?” behind that downward spiral is complicated. “I don’t have a clear answer,” says Dahya. “The literature talks about a range of intersecting issues, from social expectations around gender and work, to the sink-or-swim style of teaching and learning computer science, to blatant sexism in the workplace.”

One key issue is a phenomenon called “Geek Mythology,” emerging from the popular image of computer professionals as socially inept, nerdy white males who dream in code at night and, by day, huddle in a cubicle with their eyes glued to a computer screen. “That stereotypical picture has become a point of exclusion for a lot of people in tech, both men and women,” says Dahya.

Researchers also describe tech company cultures that are less than welcoming to women, or to the needs of having children and caring for families. Those women who do enter technology, studies show, are more likely than men to leave it – if they get hired in the first place. A gender-based experiment exploring implicit bias in STEM fields showed that the same resume got different responses if the name at the top was “Jennifer” or “John.” By name alone, “John” was judged more competent for the job.

Even if women applicants do get hired, they may enter mined territory. “People could say you were just hired to diversify the field,” says Singh. “It’s a double-edged sword … but it’s all part of the process.” 

What happens when women aren’t engaged in the tech sector, sitting around the table, brainstorming ideas, solving problems, upping the collective intelligence as teams design the latest tech devices?

One example Informatics Academic Advisor Tori Gottlieb provides is Apple’s iPhone 6 – a phone that many women have complained is simply too big and awkward for their hands, made by a company where almost 80 percent of tech jobs are held by men. “The phones are huge and don’t tend to fit in a woman’s hand,” she says. “When there’s a roomful of male creators, they don’t tend to think of that kind of thing.”

Alice Yan points to clunky first-gen smart watches. “Women don’t want to wear them because they’re so bulky – really ugly,” she says. “Women know what women want. If you get more of them involved, they’ll create products that are more appealing to women.”

The gender imbalances are one of the hottest topics in tech-talk right now. There are new documentaries (“CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap,” “CodeGirl”) and scores of stories in magazines and newspapers (“What Really Keeps Women Out of Tech?” asks The New York Times). Major tech companies are finally joining the conversation, taking a hard look at parental leave issues and other off-putting policies. 

Google has invested millions in new training programs focused on diversity, and sponsored workshops on unconscious bias in the workplace. It has also boosted the overall number of women in tech roles – but only by 1 percent. Apple has promised to improve its numbers, too, and this year reported a 65 percent increase in hiring women over the previous year – though, even with the push, women still count for only 22 percent of employees in tech roles.

At Microsoft, the number of women in tech jobs actually slipped to 16.9 percent this year.

There’s a long way to go. “This is going to be a long process,” says Dahya. “It’s about social change as much as about change within technology fields. But those companies have enough money they can say, ‘We’re going to do this differently.’ ”

The iSchool already is doing things differently, and the results are showing. Its 40 percent female enrollment in Informatics is a hallmark. But it’s not enough for Informatics’ ambitious team.

The new goal is a Superwoman leap to 51 percent. That’s the proportion of women to men on the UW campus. It’s also the proportion of women to men across the entire U.S. Says Davis: “Increasing the number of women in our Informatics program can only strengthen the fields our students are going into.”