Jenna O

COMMENTARY

Women in tech: The problem with a trickle

In the airport waiting for my flight to Orlando, I wondered if the women in tech conference I was about to attend would be a game changer for women in technology fields. Attendance at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing was 18,000, mostly female attendees – I found that number to be important.

I last attended the event in 2014 and was then amazed to be surrounded by 8,000 attendees (check out my 2014 blog post). I was elated that this year’s conference had more than doubled the number of women technologists attending in three short years, but my enthusiasm was tempered by a sober reality: The growth in Grace Hopper participants is not yet mirrored by real-life diversity in tech hires.

So, what do we need to do? This point of emphasis carried through the conference with an entirely different tone than in 2014, which focused on elevating yourself, and formed my takeaways from the 2017 event.

The Problem with a Trickle

Only in the past few years have companies gotten serious about publishing metrics on diversity in the workforce. This transparency about the incredible gender imbalances, however, has thus far led only to minimal increases in the number of women employed at tech companies.

As Melinda Gates explained in her keynote, new hiring practices, efforts to open opportunities more widely, and attempts to connect great ideas to venture capital funding so far aren’t “producing much more than a trickle.” 

Gender imbalances would be problem enough in any sector, but it is particularly concerning in the workplaces responsible for designing the products that will completely change the way we live. 

As Fei-Fei Li, Stanford professor and Google Cloud Chief Scientist, impressed upon us, “machine values are human values.” If we are not purposeful in having diverse perspectives shape technology, then the outcomes will suffer.

This came further to life for me listening to Lucy Vasserman, software engineer at Google, explain the potential ramifications of her current project: building algorithms to automatically detect offensive content. Done properly, Google’s work will help combat cyberbullying, but done wrong, it could create censorship.

Ethical questions about data and technology abound – and the debate surrounding these issues is only likely to intensify. I, for one, certainly want as many women and diverse backgrounds at the table to grapple with thorny issues while building the technology that will change the world.

How to combat the risks

Be Bold. Being transparent on gender and diversity statistics is not enough. To make these numbers change, companies must go beyond reporting the “as is” and make real commitments to enacting change. I am proud of Accenture’s pledge to create a 50 percent female workforce by 2025. A coalition of 27 CEOs launched “Paradigm for Parity” a group committed to gender parity by 2030. I hope to see the rest of the tech industry and the Fortune 500 make such commitments that will truly drive change.

Open the Club. Coming from a non-computer science background myself, I know first-hand the sense of feeling like an imposter in the tech club. Amazing initiatives have sprouted up to engage young females in computer science and change the future workforce. But the risk is too great for us to simply wait for enough females to receive computer science degrees. Our society is perfectly happy to celebrate the male college drop-out, tech genius. So, let’s give ourselves the same leeway to acknowledge that women will take untold paths and come from unconventional backgrounds to find a passion for technology.

For instance, I want to make sure we acclaim examples like Reshma Saujani, the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Previously an attorney, she has increased the impact of her organization from 20 girls in 2012 to 40,000 girls this year. We will all win by offering everyone their opportunity to demonstrate worth at the table and on the keyboard. 

Following in the wise words of Melinda Gates, “We want to teach computers the very best humanity has to offer. To do this, we need all genders, all ethnicities, and all human beings.”

About the Author

Jenna O’Steen is senior manager and services solution strategist lead for Accenture Federal.

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