Early pioneers in computer science were women.
Women like Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik, Dame Stephanie Shirley and Lynn Conway, were among the first programmers as the field emerged, and left a lasting mark on the industry. In fact,
back in its early stages programming was primarily a female-oriented profession and
women were the largest trained technical workforce of the computing industry during the second world war right through until the mid-sixties.
Then in the 1970’s things changed. Personal computers came onto the market. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came onto the scene, job advertisements for programmers started targeting males. Computer games were targeted at boys, and the stereotype of the computer programmer as a reclusive, anti-social eccentric male nerd was born. The number of women majoring in computer science and software development began to drop, from close to 40 per cent in the 1980’s to around 15 percent today. In crypto and blockchain less than nine percent of the current community are female and the number of female programmers in this space is even less.
So how can this trend be reversed and how can the unhelpful stereotype of recent years be undone? How can we once again encourage, support and train female programmers to ensure women are an equal and integral part of this booming and promising industry?
After all, blockchain is a revolutionary technology that has the potential to transform many industries and the way we do business, but doing so will require divergent thinking, different perspectives, creativity and the ability to innovate, all of which, research shows time and time again, are driven by diversity – gender included.
At the same time we live in a world facing many complex, interconnected and wicked problems, the likes of which cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them. We need all of our collective and diverse ideas and experiences to come up with the solutions to today’s challenges and create tomorrow’s future.
Many in the industry recognize this power of diversity. Marie Wieck, General Manager at IBM Blockchain believes that, “when you get interdisciplinary engagement and skills and people who have come from different backgrounds, that really does create an innovation sandbox.”
Cryptocurrency exchange, Cryptopia, are working to increase diversity across all teams, “not to only reach gender parity, but as a strong step forward in striving towards the creativity and ingenuity that fuels innovation – which can only be achieved through diversity.”
In addition, gender diversity can lead to higher returns and valuation, according to Salam Khanji, CTO of Jordan based blockchain company Green Tomorrow. A study of gender diversity in some of the top firms in the US found that, on average, female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value. Clearly gender diversity pays.
How Can We Make Programming Cool For Girls Again?
- Redefine The Image
“There are a lot of anecdotal studies that say if you can’t see yourself in a role that you are unlikely to pursue it,” says Wieck.
There needs to be more female role models and they need to be positively profiled in the field through media coverage, awards and promotion to visible leadership roles.
We also need to highlight the dynamic nature and features of the job. Programmer roles are often seen as a very static, isolated roles, sitting in a cubicle, tied to your laptop for hours on end coding with little human interaction. In reality programmer roles are much more dynamic and involve problem solving, product development, client interaction and business involvement, with many different roles and levels of opportunity. We need to articulate and promote the dynamics of the role in job advertisements and through media coverage if we are to attract more diverse applicants to these positions.
- Shift The Culture
The culture of any workplace or industry is hugely influential on the type of people it attracts and retains. Developing policies around inclusion and diversity are just the beginning. Addressing deeper issues such as unconscious bias in hiring and promotion practices as well as adjusting recruitment processes are important to shift organizational culture and give women an equal footing in any role, including as programmers.
New Zealand blockchain Company, Centrality, have deliberately adapted their hiring process to increase recruitment of female programmers including interviewing all non-male applicants that apply. Centrality co-founder Aaron McDonald observes that “often women undersell their skills in their CV and so interviewing them will help to understand their skills better.”
Digital Currency platform, Coinbase, have made commitments to hiring inclusively. 33 percent of their leadership roles are held by women and for each open position at the VP level and above, the company ensures that three qualified people from underrepresented backgrounds are interviewed.
- Addressing Mid-Career Drop Outs, Role Flexibility and Re-Training
There is presently a high mid-career drop out rate of women in tech. This is a time when women are often juggling their career with caregiver roles, whether elder care or childcare, requiring some flexibility and accommodations to be able to continue to fulfil both roles. It‘s also a time when they may be returning to work after some time off. These years away from the industry, especially one that is evolving so rapidly, often leaves a gap on their CV and in their skill sets. Re-skilling programs and considerations in hiring processes are vital to ensuring talented female programmers are re-employed and supported to advance their career at this critical juncture.
Centrality combines a culture of flexibility with high levels of accountability to accommodate and encourage more female programmers in their company who often are juggling family commitments. Whilst ThoughtWare CEO Sonja Bernhardt sees flexibility and agility as critical to retaining and attracting her 100% female coding team. She says, “We are highly agile in how we are structured and how we operate. Core values at ThoughtWare are about individuals and thinking, with people accepting adult responsibility for what they do and when they do it.”
When it comes to retraining and hiring mid-career women, IBM Blockchain Wieck says, “Even though we have a great track record in both advancing and recruiting women to IBM, we still find that they drop out of tech more frequently than men. So we formed a program called Pathways to Technology that is mentoring that mid-career woman and also looking at the re-entry of women who may have stepped out because of family needs and how to reintroduce them into the workforce and catch them up given the fast pace of change in skills.”
Formal leadership development programs at this mid-career level have also proven to be critical to retaining female talent in any organisation, including female technologists. According to AnitaB.org,“Investing in formal leadership development programs lets women know that their growth and advancement is a priority. They help women clearly identify their goals and create strategies for reaching positions of greater influence and responsibility”.
- Educate And Train Newcomers
The tech industry has faced criticism for not attracting and retaining female workers and much of this criticism is certainly warranted. However, many blockchain companies say they would love to employ more female programmers but they simply aren’t out there or aren’t applying for the jobs. So clearly, despite all best efforts and intentions there is also a pipeline issue – a training and education issue. Organizations like Girls Who Code, She Codes and Rails Girls are doing their bit to train and encourage young women to code but more must be done to target women to learn the craft.
Whilst jobs in technology and blockchain are poised for ongoing growth and expansion, women presently represent a very small percentage of these roles. Building an inclusive workplace and recruiting and retaining more female programmers requires strategic, ongoing effort including an overhaul of the unconscious bias and stereotyped image of the role. But this effort is critical for our industry to thrive and develop the diverse products and solutions needed for the 21st century and to solve the wicked problems of our time.