Tackling toxic tech culture on its 10th anniversary

Ten years ago, 20 New York high school girls gave up seven weeks of their summer to meet in a tech company’s Flatiron Building conference room and learn the basics of computer programming.

At the time, it didn’t necessarily seem so important, but that experience became Girls Who Code’s inaugural summer program. Founded in 2012 by Reshma Saujani, the New York-based nonprofit strives to close the gender gap in IT jobs, in part by creating a steady pipeline of female STEM talent.

Girls Who Code has taught computer skills – from basic coding to algorithm and web design – to around 500,000 girls around the world, a number it aims to double over the next decade. More than a third of those participants have earned college degrees related to computer science, compared to 5% of all American women, according to the organization.

A group photo of the 20 participants at the first-ever Girls Who Code summer program in 2012 in New York City.

Source: Girls Who Code

Girls Who Code has now raised over $100 million in total from some of the biggest companies in the world, including Apple, Microsoft and Walmart. Yet, Saujani notes, the current percentage of women working in the tech industry — around 32% — is actually three percentage points lower than it was in 1984, according to a Joint study 2020 from Girls Who Code and Accenture.

“We’re not moving fast enough,” Saujani, now Girls Who Code board chair, told CNBC Make It. “The number of women in tech is not that different from what it was 10 years ago.”

This means the organization, on its 10th anniversary, faces a crossroads: the gender gap in tech may be more than just a talent pipeline issue. And Girls Who Code needs an expanded focus if it’s going to make a bigger difference in the next 10 years.

‘Where are the girls?’

Girls Who Code is the product of a failed political campaign: Saujani is a former corporate lawyer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy in 2008 and ran for a seat in the US Congress in New York in 2010 Her bid fell through, but on the campaign trail, she saw something interesting.

In fact, it was rather what she did not see.

“I would go to [a] in computer science class, and literally just seeing, like, lines and lines and lines of boys trying to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” she says. “I was like: Where are the girls?

Part of the problem, Saujani says, is that girls can be deterred from taking STEM education subjects at a young age. Although she is the daughter of two engineers, “I have that in my head [early on] that I was not good at it,” she says. “I think that’s what happens to a lot of girls.

Dr. Tarika Barrett, who took over as director of Girls Who Code in April 2021says another problem is that top tech role models are often male.

“Our data tells us: Before girls are even 10 years old, they’ve already internalized so many of these cultural touchstones of what a computer scientist looks like,” she says. “It resonates with them throughout their lives.”

These data points are central to Girls Who Code’s mission: funneling more women into an industry where entry-level employees can land annual salaries in excess of $150,000 at companies like Google and Facebook, Saujani says, could be ” this great equalizer, in terms of poverty reduction”. … you could literally bring millions of girls into the middle class.”

Change the culture

First step: encourage a radical cultural change in STEM education.

Barrett is proud of Girls Who Code’s various awareness campaigns, a book series for young readers at a joint 2020 Super Bowl Advertising with skincare brand Olay, featuring stars Lily Singh and Busy Phillips as astronauts. Girls Who Code even did music videos with rappers like Lizzo and Doja Cat.

“These campaigns aren’t just entertainment,” Barrett says. “Anytime a girl, and especially a black or brown girl, sees herself reflected in something like this, it can be a game-changer.”

The shift in perspective is palpable, Saujani says. Ten years ago, she would often hear parents who struggled to get their daughters interested in coding say, “That’s just not cool.”

Now, she says, she’s “inundated with people like, ‘Do you want to take a picture with me? My daughter is the captain of her robotics team!’ We have changed [the] culture, and we made coding cool.”

Girls Who Code CEO Dr. Tarika Barrett with a group of young coders.

Source: Girls Who Code

According to Saujani and Barrett, step two is much harder for Girls Who Code to achieve, as it revolves around the culture of many American tech companies.

“Half of women leave tech jobs by age 35, and many say their workplaces were still inhospitable to women,” Barrett said, citing the Girls Who Code study and Accenture. Harassment often creates toxic work cultures: In 2020, the nonprofit Women Who Tech found that more than 40% of female tech workers said they had been sexually harassed by a supervisor.

Women now make up just 26% of the workforce in IT-related jobs – with Black and Latina women making up only about 5%collectively – according to a study of the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

More than half of Girls Who Code alumni come from historically underrepresented racial or socioeconomic groups, according to the organization, but this concentration has yet to result in significant change in the industry.

“And we still have half of women in tech saying they lack female role models,” Barrett said.

The next 10 years

Barrett and Saujani say they are realistic about the limits of their work and all that needs to happen before gender equity in computing is a realistic possibility.

Both suggest that Girls Who Code could better leverage its partnerships with tech giants — like Twitter and Facebook, for example — to help improve their environment for female employees.

“Our research also found that more inclusive workplace cultures could actually increase the number of women in tech by three million,” Barrett says. “A lot of it really encourages companies to take a deep look at their own practices.”

With that in mind, says Barrett, Girls Who Code has a new goal: Achieve gender parity in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030. Once girls get interested in IT, you need to make sure they can actually pursue careers in tech as young women, she says.

To this end, Girls Who Code has rolled out a workforce development program aimed at matching its college-aged alumni with potential tech jobs and female tech mentors. Last year, the association also in partnership with the Biden administration as part of an initiative to create more career paths for women in cybersecurity and technology.

The new focus means having “tougher conversations” with tech companies, Barrett says. And while there’s no “magic” solution, she notes, “it’s the kind of self-reflection that leads to moving away from those white male offices and creating spaces that more accurately reflect the world we live in today”.

It’s a lot easier said than done, but Barrett says she’s not discouraged. “We are on the right track,” she said. “[But] there’s still so much to do.”

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