Solving Tech's Women Problem

Molly Soat
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
  • Historically, women have been underrepresented in business and politics, but as those trends continue to reverse, gender inequality in the computing field still is growing.

  • There are so many barriers keeping girls and women out of the field of computing that you have to market to them to get them interested and to make them believe that they can belong.

  • As women continue on in computer science and engineering majors, there’s a danger that they’ll feel out of place, inadequate or unwelcome among their peers.

With gende​r inequality in the STEM fields​top of mind, the University of Washington's computing department is making headway by marketing computer engineering to women

In 1869, British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill published an essay called “The Subjection of Women” in which he argued that working toward gender equality is not a matter of bleeding-heart charity, but rather one of utility. In a society in which women are absent from the professional and political worlds, half of human imagination and brain power is wasted.

This is the crux of Ed Lazowska’s argument in creating a gender-equal computer science and engineering (CSE) department at the University of Washington’s (UW) Seattle campus. “Computer system design and engineering is highly creative,” says Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at UW who spearheads the department’s gender parity efforts. “Each of us brings our own perspective to any creative process. If there are groups that are underrepresented, you end up with a worse outcome. Even if you’re a capitalist who cares about nothing except more people buying your product, you get a better quality outcome if you have a diverse population involved.”

Women held just 26% of professional computing jobs in 2013, compared with 57% of all jobs total, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a nonprofit group of universities, corporations and government organizations that provides resources to advance women in the technology field. And while women graduated with 57% of the bachelor degrees awarded in 2013, just 18% received a degree in computer science. Thirty percent of UW’s CSE degrees were awarded to women last spring—nearly twice the national average.

Lazowska’s program has garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, and media attention from the likes of The New York Times and The Seattle Times​, but UW’s marketing and communication departments have yet to leverage the program for the university’s broader benefit. With gender inequality in science, technology, engineering and math fields continuing to make headlines in the U.S., university marketers at schools with strong STEM programs have valuable marketing fodder to help entice more female applicants.


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A Growth ​Market

There will be 1.4 million computing jobs in the U.S. by 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making IT one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Student interest is growing in computer science degrees, of course, but many universities take a hostile weed-’em-out approach to their computing departments to prevent enrollment from outpacing faculty and classroom bandwidth. The problem with those kinds of tough introductory courses is that the students who are being weeded out are those who are already underrepresented, Lazowska says.

In 2013, 56% of all advanced placements test takers in high schools across the U.S. were women, but women represented just 19% of test takers for the computer science exam, according NCWIT. The gender gap in computer science starts early and continues through to the professional world, where only 26% of computer science posts are filled by women.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in business and politics, but as those trends continue to reverse, gender inequality in the computing field still is growing. Between the 1960s and the mid-1980s, women’s share of computing jobs grew at the same pace as those in law, medicine and the physical sciences. But in the mid-1980s, the number of women in technology plateaued, then plummeted, with job share dropping from 37% in 1985 to 26% in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Computers at the time were marketed as toys for boys. Video games from Atari and later Sega catered more to male consumers’ tastes, so girls began to see the computing realm as a boys’ club, experts say.

Since this is a problem created by marketing, it must be fixed by marketing, says Lecia Barker, senior research scientist at NCWIT, where she studies inclusive university computing departments to find out what they do right. Women get to undergraduate school with, on average, much less experience in computer gaming and coding, so those women believe that they’re behind the boys in the class who have been playing with computers since childhood.

“There are so many barriers keeping girls and women out of the field of computing that you have to market to them to get them interested and to make them believe that they can belong,” Barker says. “Interest is one of those necessary but not sufficient conditions. We use a marketing approach to show women and girls—and the people who influence them—that they can be successful.”

With help from New York-based marketing firm BBMG, NCWIT created a video series called “Sit With Me” in which NCWIT members and other women in technology tell their stories and discuss the importance of a gender-diverse computing workforce. ​​​

NCWIT also distributes how-to guides for companies to create inclusive job listings and work environments, and provides grants to universities’ computing departments that have made strides in recruiting and retaining women in their programs.

Last year, NCWIT granted UW $100,000 to further its efforts toward gender parity in its computer science and engineering program. According to Barker, UW’s marketing efforts have attracted and retained an impressive number of female computer science majors—nearly a third of the department’s students. With monetary grants of that size—let alone enrollment opportunities being left on the table—other universities should take advantage of this fresh candidate pool, Barker says.

UW’s Three-Pronged ​Approach

Nine years ago, Lazowska and his department created a series of videos to show the public that computer science and engineering don’t have to mean coding in an office all day. Many women gravitate toward fields in which they can help other people, so marketing messaging that positions coding as a solution for societal problems could resonate with them, he says. “Our message for a number of years has been computer science at the center of improving people’s lives and making the world a better place. It gives you the power to do those things. … If what you want is energy efficiency or improved transportation, or better education or lower-cost and more efficacious healthcare, then there is no better way to get leverage in those things than computer science, and all of these are messages that we need to communicate.”

Today, Lazowska and the CSE department have a three-pronged approach to attracting women to—and making sure that they graduate from—the computer science discipline: K-12 education and outreach; more inclusive and welcoming introductory computer science courses; and female-focused community development within the major. The first step—educating K-12 teachers and students on the importance of computer science and girls’ ability to excel at it—is the focus of many companies and nonprofits today. New York-based nonprofit Girls Who Code aims to expose 1 million K-12 girls to coding projects by 2020. Google’s Made With Code is a website with free computer engineering tools aimed at young girls, and computer camps tailored to girls are popping up across the country.

UW, meanwhile, is shoring up its alumni and student outreach to connect female computer science majors and professionals with speaking engagements at elementary and middle schools. UW also has a day camp during the summer called Dog Bytes in which girls attend classes at UW on coding, robotics and graphic design.

Unfortunately, such programs often peter out for girls after high school. According to Maureen Biggers​, assistant dean for diversity and education at Indiana University’s informatics and computing department and director of the university’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology (CEWiT), many corporations have pulled funding from programs like hers in favor of focusing on K-12 outreach. Tech companies like Intel, Microsoft and Google, she says, have “written off universities and said, ‘It’s too late to reach [females] at university because they’re too far gone.’ I disagree.”

Both Biggers’ program and UW’s have changed their introductory computing courses to make sure that women— many of whom have never taken a computing class, unlike their male peers—don’t get discouraged by their lack of basic knowledge. Especially for overachieving women, this is a big hurdle because many have aced advanced courses in math, science and language but have never taken basic coding, so when they get a less than perfect grade in the university intro course, they think that they can’t excel.

To encourage these women to stay the course, so to speak, computing professors reach out directly to those female students who show promise. UW has, in effect, boosted its enrollment in the computer science major for female students, tracked through a student survey. “Fifty-eight percent of the women who become computing majors did not have that intention when they enrolled in the introductory course. That’s the case for just 35% of the men,” Lazowska says. “Women come to UW not expecting to study computer science. They take the intro course, love it, discover they’re good at it and apply to the major.”

As women continue on in computer science and engineering majors, there’s a danger that they’ll feel out of place, inadequate or unwelcome among their peers. It’s here that the third prong—community building—happens, Lazowska says. UW sends its female computing students to tech conferences for women and sets up visits with female computing alums. At IU, female computing students staff a computer tutoring center on campus, giving women real-world experience and a sense of community.

Excelling—​and Stalling

In August 2015, UW’s CSE program was granted the top prize of $100,000 from NCWIT for “significant gains” made in enrolling and graduating women from the program. The award is called the NCWIT Extension Services Transformation award​, and the grant money came, in large part, from Google’s nonprofit arm, IU was a runner-up, of sorts, garnering the distinction of an NCWIT Pacesetter thanks to its CEWiT program.

UW was named in a front-section article in The New York Times recognizing the NCWIT award and the strides that Lazowska and his department have made. (IU also was mentioned in the article.) Despite these national accolades, Lazowska says that the UW communications department was reluctant to publicize the NCWIT honor. “I tried to pitch the award to our central communications people, and they said, ‘No one will be interested in that.’ It ended up on the home page of The New York Times,” he says.

As with many higher education institutions and nonprofits, UW’s communications department often is stretched very thin, so Lazowska has taken it upon himself to reach out to the press with noteworthy milestones and awards, but his focus remains on bridging that gender gap and, in effect, beating his competition. “Historically in computer science, Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and [UC] Berkley are the top four programs. Then another eight or 10 of us are right there behind them. But for the past five years or so, we’ve competed with nobody but those top four departments for students or faculty,” Lazowska says. “A communication task for us is helping perception catch up with the reality of our competitiveness.”

In making sure that his department meets, or surpasses, those four competitors, Lazowska is going after that vital half of human imagination and brainpower that John Stuart Mill warned society to stop ignoring.

Women in Computing, by the Numbers

  • 57% of professional occupations in the 2013 U.S. workforce held by women.

  • 57% of 2012 undergraduate degree recipients who were women.

  • 37% of 1985 computer science undergraduate degree recipients who were women.

  • 26% of professional computing occupations in the 2013 U.S. workforce held by women.

  • 18% of 2012 computer and information sciences undergraduate degree recipients who were women.

  • 51% decrease in female computer science undergraduates between 1985 and 2012.​

This article was originall​y published in the October 2015 issue of Marketing News.


Author Bio:
Molly Soat
Molly Soat is a staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. Contact her at
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