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21st Century Coding: How Are Leaders Responding?

21st Century Coding: How Are Leaders Responding?

In March 2016, we explored the gender and ethnic disparity in computer science majors. We highlighted two enterprising leaders at Stanford and Harvard that were taking bold steps to make meaningful change at their respective universities. This article will expand upon the theme of leaders at universities actively working to close the gender gap in technology-based educational opportunities. We will also introduce the reader to leaders in technology companies that recognized an imbalance in their workforce and have taken innovative action in order to address the issue.

A 2014 National Public Radio (NPR) article titled, Who Studies What? Men, Women And College Majors, illustrated that even though women represented over 50% of the undergraduate population they accounted for less than 25% of the declared computer science majors. Women were a clear majority in the following undergraduate majors: art, communications, education, health, languages, and social work. The gender split was approximately 50% / 50% in business, math, and science undergraduate majors.

A growing number of schools are taking corrective action to correct the gender gap. For example, using a three-step method, Harvey Mudd College in California quadrupled its female computer science majors. The experiment started in 2006 when Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and mathematician herself, was appointed college president. That year only 10% of Harvey Mudd’s computer science majors were women. Following is a brief overview of the steps taken by the college:

  • Step 1: Semantics Count – The university revised the name of the introductory computer science course from Introduction to programming in Java to Creative approaches to problem-solving in science and engineering using Python. As part of this first step, the professors divided the class into groups—Gold for those with no coding experience and Black, for those with some coding experience. Then they implemented Operation Eliminate the Macho Effect requesting that students reserve their passion for one-on-one conversations with the instructor.
  • Step 2: Visualize Success – Upon successful completion of the introductory computer science course, women undergraduates were taken to the annual Grace Hopper Conference, which bills itself as a celebration of women in technology. The conference featured successful women with careers in technology. The goal was to stimulate future enrollment of these undergraduates in computer science courses.
  • Step 3: Make It Matter – The final step was the creation of a Summer research project for women undergraduates that had successfully completed the introductory computer science course. The research project took place between the student’s freshman and sophomore years and enabled them to utilize their new or enhanced computer skills to solve real-world issues.

At the end of a four-year experiment, computer science represented 40% of the female student majors, a four-fold increase. Other universities such as Duke, Northwestern, and UC Berkeley have tried similar campaigns on campus that yielded success.

Now to segue into technology companies that introduced programs specifically to address career opportunities for women. First, the lack of women in engineering, science, and technology professions is a misnomer as the 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science, illustrates. Approximately 41% of highly qualified engineers, scientists, and technologists were women. However, the article does identify an existing problem, over 52% of these highly qualified candidates left their positions. Research indicates the exodus from these roles is most pronounced in women during their mid-to-late thirties. How are the enterprises responding to this crisis?

A March 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal, What’s Holding Back Women in Tech?, lists several actions by enterprises such as the implementation of the NFL’s Rooney Rule at Facebook and Pinterest. Their version of the rule requires that a woman or an under-represented minority receive an interview for every open position. Cisco is ensuring that job candidates encounter at least one interviewer of their same gender or ethnicity, a practice that has resulted in a roughly 50% increase in the odds a woman will be hired for a given position, said Ruba Borno, a Cisco vice president. Padmasree Warrior, U.S. chief executive of electric auto startup NextEV Inc., said she asks her recruiting team daily for a list of diverse candidates. Amazon and Netflix have implemented generous family-leave benefits in order to alleviate stress related to the balance between work life and family life. Elisa Steele, CEO of Jive Software, meets personally with women prior to them taking maternity leave and assures them that their job will be waiting for them when they return. Schuberg Philis, a mission-critical IT service provider and driving force in the Apache CloudStack community, hosted a Girls’ Day in April 2016 at their office in The Netherlands to get women affiliated with their workplace and introduce them to an alternative field of work that they may not have otherwise considered entering.

The news is encouraging. People are aware of the issue of under-representation of women in specific key professions. Through trial and error, leading educational and corporate institutions are attempting to improve the opportunities for women in higher education and then later as they enter and mature in their chosen professions.


Randall Smith – 1stel Marketing Analyst