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Closing the Gender Gap in Tech

Companies seeking to bolster the pipeline of women in tech target education.

Before Jaime Chambron was even 10 years old, she had already discovered she had an affinity for math and problem-solving. Her interests led her on a path that eventually landed her the title of vice president of customer engagement at NTT Data Services. Though it never really bothered Chambron, she was often one of few females, if not the only one, at the math and computer science classes and competitions she attended. It was early exposure, along with the confidence she was provided at home, that aided in her career’s trajectory. “I was put into a math magnet program where they nurtured that capacity,” Chambron says. “It was the educational environment that nurtured the need to explore.”

Many companies and researchers believe education and exposure at a young age ultimately will improve the gender imbalance within the technical workforce. In a 2015 report released by the American Association of University Women, researchers found that, starting in middle school, boys feel “more positive” about science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—subjects than their female counterparts. The divide grows from there. “While it is certainly possible to decide to pursue a career in engineering or computing well after high school graduation, these findings suggest early exposure to engineering and computing … is often a precursor to actually pursuing a career in these fields,” the report reads. It also cites a survey that suggests encouragement also plays a key role for girls continuing to pursue their interest in STEM fields. The AAUW suggests these solutions will minimize the current gap. In 2016, women only made up 12 percent of the engineering workforce and 25 percent of the computing workforce, according to the AAUW.

With these factors in mind, and an increasing demand for technical talent, North Texas technology companies often take a two-pronged approach: Investing at the lower education levels to build a pipeline of candidates, and creating programs to help recruit, support, and retain women in the field. Though there’s no silver-bullet fix to widening the pool of female candidates in STEM, early education efforts can only improve the outcome. And some North Texas companies are betting on it.

Corporations Take Charge

AT&T Foundation president Nicole Anderson says for years AT&T has been well aware of the role education plays in the technology gender gap. That is partially the reason why the company launched AT&T Aspire in 2008. The program initially aimed to improve high school drop-out rates. It has since evolved to support STEM initiatives and address the gender gap in technology on the educational level. In the last five years, Aspire has contributed nearly $12 million to support women in STEM initiatives including Girls Who Code, which caters to teens, and Black Girls Code, which addresses adolescents through teens. The goal is to make it so that “young girls aren’t scared of math and science, but see them as another language,” Anderson says.

It’s still early to see how well the investments are paying off, as the first students the company worked with are just now making their way through college. While AT&T invests in youth education, it’s also addressing adults interested in the technology field. AT&T offers what it calls “nano-degrees” or certifications for people 18 years and older that can be obtained via a six- to 12-month online course. The nano-degrees provide opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise have the prerequisites for tech jobs. “We’re looking at it as two sides of the same coin,” Anderson says. “Getting into the community and to the girls at a young enough age. … The other side is reskilling internally.”

Dell similarly has backed Girls Who Code; invested in Northeastern University’s Align scholarship, which focuses on the gender gap in computer science; and linked up with the AAUW to develop the “Playbook on Gender Equity in Tech.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft, which operates a U.S. service center in Las Colinas, has hosted community events including DigiGirlz Day, a one-day event that targets high school girls. The local campus has hosted youth, tech-related events for about 10 years, which has helped it identify future employees, says Raamel Mitchell, Microsoft’s Las Colinas campus director. It also works with Dallas ISD and Irving ISD schools and nonprofits including the Boys & Girls Club to try to stimulate interest in STEM. “What the industry is finding is after the fifth grade, girls stop pursuing STEM,” Mitchell says. “If they don’t see other women doing it, it’s less likely to continue.”

To combat this, Microsoft’s women executives attend various education events to talk about skills development, technology, and coding, serving as examples for the younger generations. Microsoft also has sent executives like Kate Johnson, president and corporate vice president of Microsoft U.S., to speak to teachers on why STEM matters. “If the pipeline isn’t there, then we can’t reach more women,” Mitchell says. “That’s why we’re reaching out into the community.”

Beyond launching similar community efforts, Sabre Corp., which also supports its own women’s employee resource group called Sabre Women’s Exchange, targets specific universities during its recruiting efforts. “We like to go to schools that have at least 40 percent women,” says Lesley Harris, Sabre’s vice president of Global Service Delivery for Hospitality Solutions and head of Sabre Women’s Exchange. “The funnel has to be diverse enough coming in. Otherwise you’re setting up for failure.”

University Leadership

Knowing that technology companies are actively seeking women in tech, local universities are aiming to bolster the pools of candidates they provide.

It’s not a new problem, but it has become more severe over the decades, says Janell Straach, professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “If we go back to the ’80s, we did not have the problem we have now,” she says. “We still weren’t at equality, but we’ve had a steady decline in women choosing tech.”

But local university efforts are showing progress. More than 350 women received undergraduate degrees in engineering and computer science from UTD during the 2016-2017 school year, representing about 24 percent of graduates in those fields. This compares to the 2014-2015 national average, in which women made up about 19 percent of engineering graduates and 18 percent of computer science graduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While UTD remains above the national average, there’s still work to be done, Straach says.

That’s why Straach is part of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, which is a collaboration between businesses and academia to increase women’s participation in computing. Since joining seven years ago, Straach has seen companies partner with the organization, providing awards programs, role models, and mentors.

Straach also recognizes the need to create a community of support for women in tech. So UTD has created what it calls a “living learning community” for women in STEM. “We know women do better if they don’t feel isolated,” Straach says. “That’s what’s happening in class. They feel isolated so they drift to other areas.” With the living learning community, UTD places women in STEM in the same apartment complex aiming to create a support network. The university also launched Women Who Compute, which often brings in local companies.

“I see an increased level of proactivity,” says Straach, previously of IBM. “Companies were always focused on diversity, but … over the last 10 years there’s been an emphasis on women in tech.”

Similarly, Southern Methodist University’s Lyle School of Engineering graduates more women than the national average. Its graduating classes are typically between 32 and 34 percent female, says Linda Parker, director for Lyle’s Hart Center for Engineering Leadership. Local employers like AT&T regularly link up with the university to host lunches and networking events with students sometimes even within their first year. More than a decade ago, the school used to have scholarships targeting women in engineering and tech fields. Now, recruiting takes care of itself, says Dean Marc Christensen. “We have an incredible, active society of women in engineering,” he says. “They’re out in the community showing other women that a job in engineering is a fantastic career.”

NTT Data’s Chambron, also a founding member of a local chapter of the Alliance of Technology and Women, says she’ll continue to encourage others. After all, she had plenty of help along her way.

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