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More Women Are Choosing To Code, But Is Silicon Valley Ready For Them?

More Women Are Choosing To Code, But Is Silicon Valley Ready For Them? (Christy Duong, 17, is planning to major in computer science this fall and hopes to eventually work in tech, but also expects to confront sexism in her pursuit of a career in tech. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio)
Christy Duong, 17, is planning to major in computer science this fall and hopes to eventually work in tech, but said she also expects to confront sexism along the way. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

Camila Miner is learning computer programming for the first time, and she’s doing it totally surrounded by women.

Miner is part of a 22-woman cohort at Hackbright Academy, an all-female coding boot camp in San Francisco, where classroom walls are covered in cheerful Post-It notes with handwritten affirmations like “You’re amazing.” There’s a framed poster from Hidden Figures, the movie about the female African-American mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. The vibe is overwhelmingly supportive. Some students are even high-fiving each other as teams of two work through the day’s assignment.

Miner considered going to college after emigrating from Brazil but instead opted for boot camp at Hackbright, paying $16,500 for a 12-week course she hopes will result in an entry-level tech job. In fact, she thinks that being a woman might give her a leg up in job interviews with tech companies trying to fix gender imbalance among their ranks.

Hackbright is not alone its mission to empower female coders. Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and Technovation all share the goal of getting more women into tech. Combined, the organizations claim to have reached over 38,000 female coders-in-training.

Clearly, more young women are ready to invest in tech…but is tech ready to invest in them?

Women make up about half of the overall workforce in the U.S., but only about a quarter of the tech workforce. Even industry leaders have work to do.

According to a 2015 report on diversity conducted by McKinsey, gender-diverse companies are 15 percent more likely to financially outperform companies with a predominately male workforce.

For many companies, the challenge goes beyond recruiting new female tech talent — the trick is retaining them. That often comes down to culture. According to Elephant in the Valley, a high-profile survey of over 200+ women who have spent at least 10 years working in tech, the majority of respondents said they felt excluded from key networking/career building opportunities in social settings because of their gender — like golf games or gatherings at the local bar. Women also reported experiencing unwanted sexual advances, and being told they were “too aggressive.”

Back at Hackbright, first-time-coder Camila Miner said that while she’s aware of the challenges, she and fellow students try to remain optimistic.

We focus mostly on being good enough,” Miner said, “so there’s going to be no reason for anybody to bring up, ‘Well, you’re not a man and you’re not good enough’.” 

Camila Miner, 26, is enrolled in a 12-week computer coding course for women. She hopes it will lead to an entry-level tech job in the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

But Allison Scott, lead researcher on the 2017 Tech Leavers Survey from the Kapor Center for Social Impact, says that being good at what you do isn’t enough.“We found that women experience significantly more unfairness than men,” said Scott.

Along with fellow researchers, Scott surveyed more than 2,000 people about why they left jobs in the tech industry. Women in the study reported higher instances than men of being stereotyped, sexually harassed, and being passed over for promotions. Women of color reported the highest rate of unfair treatment. 

“Unfairness alone costs companies a staggering  $16 billion per year,” Scott said, referring to the high cost of turnover and recruitment.

Source: The Kapor Center 2017 Tech Leavers Study

When Danielle Olson, 25, first earned admission to MIT as an undergraduate Computer Science & Engineering student, she said that some high school classmates told her that she only got accepted because she was black. Olson says it took years before she finally felt like she belonged.

“I really believed that I had to be Bill Nye the Science Guy to be successful in engineering or science,” Olson said. “You know, have his personality type, his interests — even the way he dressed and looked and talked.”

Now Olson is pursuing a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at MIT, with plans to become a college professor and mentor others in computer science, bit by bit encouraging the next generation of women to de-program Silicon Valley’s dude bias.

“The more I learn about engineering and science, the more I realize how important it is that I’m here,” said Olson, adding that when there’s greater diversity at the coding table, it’s easier to prevent algorithmic bias and build better products.

Danielle Olson, a 25-year-old Ph.D. computer science candidate at MIT, said she battled imposter syndrome for years before feeling like she belonged. Photo: Jason Dorfman

But what can companies do to address the gender imbalance? The Kapor study about Tech Leavers found that hiring an inclusion director and setting diversity goals actually helps retain female tech workers. And a study released this past June by FundersClub, an online startup investing platform, says tech startups with at least one female founder hire twice as many women overall.

In August, 17-year-old Christy Duong will start her freshman year at UC Merced, studying Computer Science and Engineering. She believes gender discrimination shouldn’t deter young women hoping to write their careers in code.

“If you like it then you should do it, regardless of gender,” Duong said, adding that if she encounters gender discrimination in the workplace, she is prepared to address it head on. “I’ll tell them to stop because it’s not comfortable and it’s not appropriate.”

And if the sexism didn’t stop? What would she do?

Duong thought for a moment.

“Then…I’m just going to suck it up and deal with it. Because I would like a job.”

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