Opinion: You Can't Solve The Gender Gap In Tech If You Don't Understand Why It Exists

When we dodge the complex story of the gender gap in tech, we fail to address the problem — because we don’t understand it.

A few months ago, after a lengthy back-and-forth about an upcoming segment on girls and tech, producers for 60 Minutes contacted one of us — Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of littleBits — with an update. “Our interview with you became a casualty,” they said, meaning it would no longer be used.

It wasn’t the only casualty of the segment, which ended up featuring a charismatic man as a spokesperson for women and girls in tech. The piece entirely omitted the expertise and experience of women-led organizations that have been pioneering the efforts to bring more women into computing. It fundamentally erased women from the record — part of a long and ugly history of media erasing the contributions of women in technology.

But perhaps most egregiously, 60 Minutes also got the actual story wrong — choosing to report a simplistic explanation for the gender gap in technology, focused on the “pipeline problem.” That’s a favorite among technology founders and business leaders, who like to believe that the cause of the massive gender imbalances in their workplaces lies far away from their own executive suites, in middle school classrooms rather than their own workplaces or culture.

While it’s true that far fewer women major in computer science than men — and that the problem starts in middle and high school when girls begin to opt out of coding classes — talking about the pipeline problem makes it easy to overlook more complex factors at play, like culture, bias, and discrimination. The 60 Minutes segment made it seem almost magically easy: If we get every girl to code, we will solve the pipeline problem.

As women who’ve been working in this space for years know, the voices this segment overlooked and the narrative it amplified are a part of a much larger battle — one in which leaders in business, media, and culture continue to opt for misleadingly simple explanations for the gender gap in the tech industry.

In this battle, pundits, producers, and politicians would rather believe in industry-favored myths and half-truths than listen to the more complex story told by women-led organizations working tirelessly to bring girls into tech. This is the very reason Girls Who Code, littleBits, and many other women-led organizations were founded: to get more girls interested in technology in the first place, and then support them throughout their journey so they stay interested, persist, and succeed.

But to call it a pipeline problem is to suggest that the issue is girls themselves — girls’ declining interest, girls dropping out, girls not sticking with a subject that’s difficult. We know that’s not true. Girls in elementary school show equal interest and aptitude as boys when it comes to coding, and then they start to see subtle and not-so-subtle signals that technology is not for them. They start to feel pressure from parents and teachers to be perfect, to get all A grades, to succeed in school. They look for role models in the field and see men in hoodies coding alone in their basements. They hear that the tech industry is not for them, and read accounts of bias and harassment from the women who do make it.

This exhausting pattern — of coverage and conversation around an oversimplified myth — has consequences.

When our society looks away from the complex story of the gender gap in tech, we fail to address the problem, because we don’t understand it. Even worse, we risk perpetuating it. And not for nothing, we risk writing women out of history.

So what is the more complex story that needs to be told?

We know that access alone isn’t enough to bring girls into coding. In fact, at Girls Who Code, our research tells us that two-thirds of states with initiatives to expand access to computer science aren’t seeing any increased participation by girls. At littleBits, we strive to infuse a love for creativity, invention, and continuous play, because we know it’s about persistence, not just initial exposure.

We all know that closing the gender gap will take building skills like bravery and resilience. You have to ensure girls feel a part of a community and that they belong. You have to show them role models and heroes that look like them. And you need to demonstrate that they can use tech to solve the problems they care about.

You have to root out the bias, discrimination, and harassment that are still widespread at every stage in the pipeline, but particularly in the business and technology industries. Companies would rather point to a silver bullet than acknowledge and fix the many factors at play in their own workplaces — and they frequently chose to cite the pipeline problem instead of investing in the hard and costly work of making their workplaces more equitable.

We know what that hard and costly work looks like. Companies need to track diversity and inclusion results and stay accountable for meaningful change. They need to invest in comprehensive and regular bias training at all levels, and get serious about wage equity by disclosing gender wage gaps and regularly reviewing salaries for women and minorities.

They must also do the far less difficult but enormously important and obvious work of holding the line on zero-tolerance policies for sexual misconduct — instead of giving golden parachutes to repeat offenders.

That just the start of it. Women-led organizations that live and breathe this work have an innate understanding of the cultural narratives, racism, sexism, biased hiring practices, and toxic workplaces that are also at play. These are organizations like ours, but also like Black Girls Code, Code 2040, Anita Borg, NCWIT, Kode With Klossy, and many others.

Yes, the story is a complex one with myriad angles and entry points. But we expect, at the very least, that news organizations like 60 Minutes — renowned for hard-hitting investigative journalism — are able to tell it.

If we are going to achieve our dream of closing the gender gap in tech, our institutions must choose to tell complex truths over simple myths. They need to make more than passing references to girls and women-led organizations who know what’s needed to close the gap. And they need to use their platforms and their power to take down barriers standing between us and a more equal world.

It’s entirely possible to bring more girls into tech, to support them at all points along the pipeline. We can close the gender gap and make sure that our girls have a part to play in defining the future of our economies, our communities, and our lives.

We can make sure that our girls are more than casualties. We can make sure they are, instead, the heroes of their own stories.

Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, the nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology while teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding.

Ayah Bdeir is the founder and CEO of littleBits. She has advised extensively on how to get more girls into STEM including at the World Bank, the White House, and the Women of the World nonprofit.

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