Three imperatives for educators to get more women in tech
Melissa Kaufman is the executive director of The Garage at Northwestern. She is a former Googler, startup veteran and entrepreneur. She is a committee member of ChicagoNEXT, a member of P33 and a venture partner at Chicago Ventures.
Women in tech.
In addition to turning up nearly two billion Google search results, those three words are music to the ears of every informed CEO or human resources manager across the U.S. And while most executives are under pressure to portray and speak in the vernacular of diversity, there’s one slight problem.
Bridging the gender gap in tech starts long before a woman joins the workforce: it starts in the classroom.
When I studied computer science at Dartmouth, there were times when I was one of the only women in the classroom. This didn’t affect my studies or my ambition, but it was frustrating because I knew other women who were capable of being in those classes, but they felt like outsiders.
Whether it’s middle school, high school or college, the time young women spend in classrooms is formative — it’s where passions are ignited and life paths are plotted. Needless to say, bridging the gender gap in tech at this source is an imperative. But this isn’t about meeting quotas, sharing platitudes on social media and trumpeting hollow awards. Reversing the brogramming trend and cultivating a more diverse tech workforce requires a tangible, scalable model to see that idea come to fruition.
During my career at Google, I had my finger on the pulse of the tech industry and realized that a realistic plan to get more women into tech would be far different than what journalists and authors were talking about. As Whitney Wolfe, the CEO and founder of the dating app Bumble, pointed out, we don’t need to criticize the workplace — we need to criticize the classroom.
With that said, here are three essential strategies that educators must embrace to get to the root of gender imbalance in tech.
Mentorship is a must
Many undergraduate women are under the impression that getting their foot in the doors of tech companies necessitates more classes or more hard skills. These are helpful, but even more important for young women is having an actual human being who can help them navigate foreign territory.
Social media influencers and sugar-bomb self-help authors are not mentors.
Let’s be clear: Social media influencers and sugar-bomb self-help authors are not mentors. In order to have a lasting impact, mentors must formalize relationships with young women, not haphazardly come in to deliver rah-rah talks. That’s why we have Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at The Garage like Northwestern alumnae Lilia Kogan, a Chicago angel investor, for students to bounce ideas off of. This transparent access to another woman who has been in their shoes, and gone on to succeed, often gives them the extra nudge they need to go from idea to execution.
Less preaching, more opportunities
Simply telling a young woman, “You can do it!” or “We value diversity!” is a cop-out. Uprooting years of gender inequity in tech requires more than saccharine speeches and corporate platitudes. It requires giving young women not just permission, but tangible opportunities to experiment, build and explore.
For example, we launched the Propel Program at Northwestern, which provides grants of up to $1,000 for women students to experiment with their ideas. The six-month program allows students to demonstrate what they did with the funding and what they learned. The most engaged participants are invited to guide the following year’s participants, reinforcing the mentorship and community components.
Collaboration with women’s student organizations
Entering an environment in which you’re the minority can be discouraging, but if young women see their peers launching startups, writing code and leading teams, that confidence has a viral impact. Nearly every school has a variety of women’s student organizations, and uniting them under a common bond is far more effective than relying on them to do so alone.
In 2015, only 25 percent of students incubating startups in The Garage were women. But once we partnered with groups on campus like The Society of Women Engineers and Women in Business, we saw a spike in women. Today, half of our student-founders are women.
Sure, “strength in numbers” sounds cliché, but camaraderie has profound psychological benefits that can inspire people, especially young women, to break through barriers. Getting more women into innovative environments is no exception.
Why are these steps so important? Because diverse teams — especially in tech — are unequivocally better equipped to solve problems and ultimately give organizations a competitive advantage. It’s just that simple.
If we want to get serious about reversing the brogramming trend, we have to go beyond quotas or playing the blame game with history, companies and “the system.” Instead, we must connect with young women early on, through mentorship, tangible opportunities and communities in which they can thrive.