Fordham conference speaker aims to shore up women’s place in tech

shutterstock_112639025by Emily Raleigh (GSB ’16)

Today, women represent only 12 percent of all college graduates in computer science. In 1984, it was 37 percent.

Today, women make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, but they hold only 25 percent of the jobs in tech fields.

How do we change this?

At last Thursday’s MakeImpactNYC conference, held at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and sponsored by the Center for Humanistic Management, “changemakers” from across New York City united for one day to discuss the transformative power of social entrepreneurship — a term that describes businesses that work for the betterment of society.

One of the changemakers is out to solve the scarcity of women in technology.

reshma_saujaniMeet Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, a company that is working to educate and inspire young women, and equip them with the skills and resources they need to pursue academic and career opportunities in computer-related fields.

“I come at this issue from a very weird place,” Saujani said. “I am not a coder. I am not an engineer. I am a lawyer. I felt like this was a policy issue that needed this attention.”

Saujani could not help but see the story in the statistics. Predictions show that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million tech jobs in the United States alone, and “at this rate, less than 30 percent of those jobs will be filled by women.”

What is most surprising is the backslide — that things are actually worse than they once were.

“In the 70s, Steve Jobs probably had more women on his engineering team than Mark Zuckerberg has today,” Saujani told the conference audience. “This is the only industry in the entire country where you see a decline in women.”

What’s the big deal, though? Should we even be concerned that women are underrepresented in the tech sector?

“It matters because we care about poverty and we care about the economy,” Saujani said. “Programmers make upwards of $80,000 per year. That is the gateway into the middle class.”

Saujani gave an exposition of possible causes behind the lack of women in technology, one of which is the dearth of visible female leaders and role models in math, science and tech. “We cannot be what we cannot see,” she said.

With that in mind, she started Girls Who Code, so that girls could explore the world of computer science and engineering in a way that they could understand and appreciate. Girls Who Code offers a summer immersion program that caters to girls’ interests and is led by female entrepreneurs and engineers. It features classes in computer science, robotics, algorithms, web design and mobile development, plus a mentoring component designed to further expose girls to the industry.

“What we do know is that 76 percent of high school girls want a career that will help them change the world,” Saujani said. The problem is, most of these girls do not see that possibility through computer science. Once involved with Girls Who Code, however, they begin to envision programs that can be transformative.

Some of them are already building these programs. Saujani talked about a Girls Who Code participant whose father was dying of cancer; through the program, she built an algorithm that could detect whether a cancer was benign or malignant. She was only 16.

Thanks to Girls Who Code, high school girls are creating programs, algorithms and apps that are more than just video games or flashy web sites. They are creating change.

 

Photo of Ms. Saujani from the American Association of University Women

 

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