From the Women in Tech luncheon that RingCentral EVP of Innovation Kira Makagon facilitated to the keynote by Girls Who Code Founder and CEO Reshma Saujani, women in high tech was a key topic of discussion at ConnectCentral® 2018.

The percentage of women holding computer science jobs has been on the decline since 1995, when 37% were female. Today this number is down to just 25%, and that figure is projected to decline to 22% by 2025. Why is this happening, and why does it matter?

Girls Who Code Founder Saujani points to cultural norms and the fact that we’re not encouraging girls to pursue computer science as a career. Boys are raised from birth to be brave, take risks, deal with failure, and move forward, she stated. But girls are coddled, taught to be perfect, and not encouraged to explore math and science. RingCentral’s Makagon said having women in computer science careers matters not just for diversity and because it’s where the jobs are, but also because research points to companies performing better when women are a part of the management team.

The challenge for women in science

Saujani’s Girls Who Code has produced 90,000 graduates in seven years, and these girls major in computer science at a rate of 16 times the average. But today, she’s less worried about the pipeline of girls entering computer science programs and more focused on attrition once they declare computer science as a major. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, reports that, before joining the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s Academic Alliance, its attrition rate for women in the computer science major was 13.6% compared with 2.5% for men.

Saujani points to the need for a cultural shift at universities—so women aren’t as isolated, plagued with insecurities, and subjected to microaggression. She speaks of being in the “2.0 phase now,” which moves beyond teaching girls to changing culture, so girls are encouraged and feel like they belong in the world of computer science.

Cultural change can be powerful—Saujani noted that in the 1970s, less than 10% of doctors and lawyers were women. But then came popular TV shows like Ally McBeal and Grey’s Anatomy, and today 50% of doctors and lawyers are women.

How to help

So how can any working man or woman help change high-tech culture to welcome more women? Three themes bubbled up from both Saujani and Makagon’s sessions:

    1. The power of male allies: When men actively support women, change happens. Saujani mentioned a Rhode Island Institute of Technology men’s club that encouraged women in science and helped shift the percentage of girls graduating with coding skills from less than 14% to over 27%. Makagon’s panel and audience agreed it helps when men enter a room full of men and ask, “Where are the women?” or notice women who aren’t speaking up and ask them for their thoughts.
    2. Role models matter: Both leaders talked about the influence of women who came before them—role models—as being helpful. Makagon brought up  Margaret Hamilton and the NASA women coders who sent John Glenn into orbit as examples. Saujani, Makagon, and the members of the WiT panel are all role models whose real life stories, highlighted at technology conferences such as ConnectCentral, offer encouragement to other women.
    3. Culture matters: An example of how culture influences behavior that Saujani relayed is a Barbie book that told the story of how Barbie needed help from Ken to solve a complex computing problem. Clearly, the message is that girls should consult men where math and science are concerned. Contrast this example with one she shared of a Girls Who Code student who programmed a game called “Tampon Run. Its opening screen declares “Menstruation. It’s totally normal. And yet, women are taught that it’s embarrassing. And crude. We disagree. So we made a game to combat the stigma. Our hero is armed with tampons. Her mission is to rid the world of the menstrual taboo.” It’s a simple “shoot them with tampons before they get you” type of game, but as Saujani said, when girls are dropping out of school or staying home sick because they have their period, this game can normalize an uncomfortable situation. And it’s an issue that men are not likely to solve.

Girls Who Code is one avenue for closing the gender gap in technology. But even being aware of the gender disparity is a first step in driving change. Next time you enter a conference room, look around and ask where the women are.