The 12,000 women technology workers cheering at Houston’s Toyota Center arena this week are a far cry from the 500 who showed up for the first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
Yet for all the progress women have made in technology careers since 1994, their gains are fragile and in danger of slipping away, new research suggests.
The share of women in the computing workforce will decline to 22 percent from 24 percent in the next decade without intervention, according to research released Thursday by consultant Accenture LLP and the advocacy group Girls Who Code. Women make up just 18 percent of computer-sciences majors in the U.S., down from 37 percent in 1984, they said.
“If you don’t focus on it when it gets hard and say, ‘This is still important,’ then people who’ve been making progress are going to backslide,” said Rebecca Parsons, chief technology officer at the software company ThoughtWorks. “It’s not just the business case -- we’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”
Too often, companies need to hire quickly and end up with “10 white men from North America right there” and zero women in the pool, said Parsons, whose company was recognized for the highest representation of female employees from top to bottom. The financial case dictates it’s best and easiest to just hire the men -- resulting in less diversity and even more difficulty boosting the representation of other groups.
Conference attendees Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google parent Alphabet Inc. are among the companies struggling to increase the number of women in technology roles even as the industry creates more jobs. Part of the problem stems from companies failing to expand their recruiting pools and seek new ways to find candidates. In addition, not enough companies are forcing their executives to promote diversity and creating official programs to guide women on their careers.
“Despite a lot of effort, we’re not seeing the progress,’’ said Julie Sweet, chief executive officer of Accenture’s business in North America. “We’re seeing a decline in graduates and women in the workforce in computer science from 1995 to today and we’re predicting that will continue if we don’t intervene.”
It’s not all bad news. Women hold about 22 percent of technical roles, a 0.9 percentage point increase from the previous year, according to the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit supporting women in technology that sponsors the annual Grace Hopper conference. Many of the 60 companies that provided the data for the study have thousands if not tens of thousands of employees, so moving the needle is difficult, said CEO Telle Whitney.
“It is possible to create revolutions where things really change significantly,” she said. “You want the percentage of women (in technology) to mirror the population -- as you start to get closer to 30 percent, the dynamics of the culture start to change.”
It’s not enough for companies to just hire more women -- they also have to make sure they’re represented at higher levels, Whitney said.
While women have more representation across the ranks of technology jobs than last year, the institute found they held just 18 percent and 14 percent of senior- and executive-level roles, respectively. Companies that have more female executives tend also to have more women employees in general, Whitney said.
Companies that contributed data for the report include technology giants like International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Facebook -- as well as other employers such as the New York Times Co., Capital One Financial Corp. and Macy’s Inc.
Just having loose organizations or goals around diversity isn’t enough, Whitney said. It’s important for company executives to establish official programs, such as leadership training focused specifically on women. The programs have to identify and address specific issues and produce measurable results, she said.
“The message to the overall staff in these cases is, ‘This is important to me,”’ she said. “It’s very easy to take action and to have feel-good programs,” but those don’t necessarily end up making a difference, she said.
When Adam Warby took the top post of Avanade Inc. in 2008, none of the people reporting directly to him were women. Today, the board of the tech-services company includes gender equality in leadership as a metric to grade Warby, and he uses the same for his team. That led Avanade to establish a six-month leadership program geared toward women, and Warby himself mentored a woman who now runs the company’s Asia businesses. There are now four women in the 14-person group that reports directly to the CEO.
Companies also need to develop and nurture programs that encourage more girls to take up computer science in junior high school and stick with it, Accenture’s Sweet said. In addition, efforts to increase the number of women majoring in computer sciences must continue with a goal toward reaching 39 percent of the workforce by 2025, Sweet said. The opportunity is clear because the computer-science industry created about 500,000 new jobs last year and only about 40,000 students graduated with degrees suitable for those positions, she said.
More women teachers would help. Girls are 26 percent more likely to stick with a computer class taught by a woman, while boys don’t care, Sweet said. So if schools don’t train more women teachers than men, fewer girls will pursue the careers.
Economic pressure also has a role: The industry will struggle to fill all of its vacancies without more women taking up technology careers and will miss out on the business benefits of a more diverse workforce as a result.
“If we don’t intentionally design courses and take steps to attract and retain the girls, then we’re not going to be effective,” Sweet said. “You could feel like you’re making progress, but if you don’t actually take additional action, you are still going to leave behind the girls.’’