I grew up during the rise of feminism in the United States. When I was 10 years old and in the 5th grade, I was the first girl to dare to wear pants to school (with full support from my mother). As an adult, I fully expected equal opportunities for women. When I started working in the software industry in 1989, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me that there was an unequal playing field for women. I worked in a department that had more women than men. But when I started getting to know the software engineers, I soon discovered that most of them were men as were the executives.
Now, 30 years later, we have all heard the statistics for women in the tech industry. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT
), only 26% of professional computing occupations in the 2018 U.S. workforce are held by women. The major software companies in Silicon Valley publish their diversity numbers publicly, and few of the companies have more than 20 or 30% women in technical positions. The numbers are drastically worse for women of color. Only 3% of the computing workforce are African-American women.
As the software industry has developed a reputation for being unwelcoming to women, and stories of harassment and pay discrimination are common, fewer women are studying computer science in the United States. Recent statistics show women in the U.S. earning 57% of bachelor’s degrees, but women earned only 19% of the 2017 Computer and Information Sciences bachelor’s degrees. Unless women see software companies where women of all colors are well-represented, they will continue to opt out of joining an industry that desperately needs diversity.
As everyone in the software industry is now accurately aware of the diversity problem, the excuse we make when trying to hire a diverse workforce is that the pipeline is the problem-we can’t find women and people of color for the roles we’re trying to fill. It is incumbent upon all of us to help develop that pipeline. We need to support programs like Girls Who Code
[http://www.blackgirlscode.com/ Black Girls Code]] in the U.S.; these programs help girls learn coding skills in a supportive and inclusive environment. I have been the executive sponsor for our Girls Who Code cohorts for the few years at Autodesk, and I have been overwhelmingly inspired to see the learning and confidence-building that happens over the course of a summer Girls Who Code program.
This summer I’m taking a six-week sabbatical from work - a fabulous benefit we get at Autodesk every four years. I’m starting my sabbatical by flying to Johannesburg, South Africa to speak at the Africa Teen Geeks
“Girl Geeks Connect Summit.” I was invited to be the keynote speaker at this event by Africa Teen Geeks founder, Lindiwe Matlali. I met Lindiwe when she came to the San Francisco Bay Area with the TechWomen
program in 2017. Lindiwe saw me speak when we hosted the Bay Area TechWomen group at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco and later asked me if I would speak at an event she was hosting in 2018 in South Africa. I had a conflict in 2018, but Lindiwe was persistent and told me she’d like to have me as the keynote speaker at her Girl Geeks Connect summit in 2019. My first thought was that it was a very long journey from San Francisco to Johannesburg.
Then I had the opportunity to have lunch with Lindiwe when she came to San Francisco in February of this year. She told me about the work she’s doing to create the next Silicon Valley in South Africa, teaching children from the townships to code. She described another project she started, called “Knit to Code,” which teaches mothers and grandmothers about the concepts of coding through knitting so that they will be supportive of their children learning to code. She described the Girl Geeks event she was hosting in June, where she would have the top female students come together to learn and be inspired. By the end of our lunch, I had accepted her invitation to speak at the Girl Geeks summit.
After 30 years in the software industry, I cannot accept that women remain such a small minority, that we do not hold at least half of the technical positions, that we are not equally represented in the C-suite or on boards. My mission is to change that. I want to inspire girls to build the pipeline and come fill the many positions we have open in our companies. And so, I will get on those long flights from San Francisco to Johannesburg to meet the amazing girl geeks in South Africa, to speak to them about my story, and to inspire them to join the industries where we need their talent and their voices.