Anyone tasked with hiring tech workers over the past decade has probably openly lamented the lack of qualified talent to fill open positions. The Department of Labor estimates that 1 million technology jobs will go unfilled by 2020.
But in the last few years, this problem has only accelerated as more companies and careers become tech-enabled, requiring some level of tech skill, from familiarity with Web and database programs to high-level coding or security. Now every company is a tech company, and every company needs tech workers.
As this shortage has become more widespread and urgent, it has naturally opened up a conversation about the lack of diversity in the modern tech workforce. Women in particular make up 50% of the working population but only comprise 25% of all tech workers. Not only does it make sense to seek out women and minority candidates to help fill open positions, but there is also a growing body of evidence that shows a more diverse workforce makes a company more competitive.
But for those who complain not enough women are being hired to fill tech roles, the reality is not a deliberate male-only hiring strategy. It’s a supply-side problem, one in which the pipeline is simply not large enough to keep pace with the hiring demand. Beyond the changing nature of work, there are a number of reasons why we face such an acute shortfall in female tech workers.
Media Representation of Technologists
Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” is the prototypical representation of a techie in mainstream media. In general, any discussion or conjuring of a technologist might borrow a few standard tropes—glasses, a hoodie, pants hemmed too short, or a fanatical interest in gaming. But the near universal portrayal is that of a white male.
For most people, if you cannot visualize yourself in a role, it’s nearly impossible to achieve it. So, for girls who lack female tech role models, it’s hard to envision a path to becoming one.
This is further complicated by the manner in which the job is portrayed in film and on television—almost always in a dark room with only a computer screen for light, with people working by themselves. This lack of collaboration and creativity can create an inaccurate perception of technology as an isolating career choice.
Lack of STEM Support in Middle and High School
A number of studies, most recently from CompTIA and Accenture, have shown that girls begin self-selecting out of tech careers by ninth grade. Some of this is certainly due to the stereotype of technology as a man’s course of study. That’s reinforced by long-standing social cues that say women just aren’t as competent as men in fields like math, science, and technology—myths that have been refuted time and again.
But one of the biggest reasons that middle schoolers in general tend to drift away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is because of a lack of available course work. In general, middle schools tend to offer standard math and science instruction but not tech-related options or even extracurricular.
This is only exacerbated by a lack of study and emphasis in high school. Code.org says 33 of 50 states don’t offer graduation credit for computer science courses. Where courses are offered, they’re usually electives, which don’t fulfill core math or science requirements.
Lack of Parental Support
In another study by Accenture, 51% of parents claimed they do not know what benefits STEM can offer their daughters, and only 14% understand the career opportunities open to their daughters. Even more frightening, 70% of teachers claimed to have seen girls drop a STEM subject because they were pressured to do so by their parents.
If our girls cannot find support for empowering, lucrative career opportunities at home, we are destined to hamstring our future tech workforce.
So how can HR teams help counter these supply-side issues? Here are three tangible ways you can make a difference now and tomorrow in guiding more women to tech careers.
Mentorship programs are already a core part of many HR efforts at companies. Ensuring that women are well-represented in these ranks or have a say in who is tapped for these roles can help more junior staff carve out a path to leadership positions. HR teams can also look beyond the bounds of their own walls to facilitate mentorship roles within the community for motivated staffers. This can help create momentum among future tech workers or serve as a recruitment opportunity for current tech workers.
Support for STEM Programs and Schools
The responsibility for filling the void in STEM-related education from schools currently resides with nonprofits like my own TechGirlz organization. Companies can help lighten this lift by donating money, time, or resources like equipment and space to these groups. In this way, they can help scale efforts to reach young girls with a positive message about tech careers and counter popular perceptions about the field.
Women-Friendly Working Environments
Getting women into tech careers is a priority, but it is not the entirety of the battle. It is equally important that companies dedicate headspace to keeping women there. Workplace stereotypes, a desire to raise families, and many other challenges can derail promising female tech careers. HR teams can be an enormous part of flattening these hurdles and helping women manage the natural cycles of a career. Initiatives can include company or industry networking groups for women; appropriate maternity and family leave policies, ongoing education programs, and more. The result will be happier and more loyal current employees, as well as attractive benefits for potential new workers.
As CMO of software company Chariot Solution in charge of recruiting, Tracey Welson-Rossman was frustrated by the lack of female tech candidates. Her research led her to found TechGirlz to groom the next generation of female technology workers.