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The girls in the room: women plot a Silicon Valley revolution

Silicon Valley is perhaps the world’s leading crucible of innovation. But it is a man’s world – with women making up only 25 percent of the tech workforce. Meet the people working to change that.

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    Kristina Salen (center, l.), chief financial officer of Etsy, joined in a celebration of the company’s stock market launch in April in New York.
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In Silicon Valley-speak, the entire point of the Bay Area’s unique ecosystem of technology companies and capital is to “disrupt” – to use technology to fundamentally change the way society functions.

In a classroom of the Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco’s Mission District, rows of seated girls in identical plaid-skirted uniforms are plotting to disrupt Silicon Valley itself.

For 17-year-old Cynthia Ruiz, those plans take form as Rad Résumé, the application she is developing for a mobile phone to help teens create a well-written résumé for their first job. But really, she is the revolution in waiting.

Recommended: Why so few women in tech? Seven challenges and potential solutions.

Cynthia and her classmates are being groomed to be part of the next generation of women in technology. And few women in technology would argue that they aren’t desperately needed.

Silicon Valley is perhaps the world’s leading crucible of innovation. But it is a man’s world. While women make up roughly 50 percent of the workforce in the United States, their numbers in the tech industry come in at around 25 percent. In senior positions, it is 17 percent, and 12 percent for executive positions, according to the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the advancement of women in the tech industry.

This is more than a matter of equal opportunity, advocates for women in tech say. If Silicon Valley wants to continue disrupting the status quo, it should be eager to make sure it’s incorporating the other half of the population.

In some cases, there are questions of overt bias against women. Last year, Ellen Pao filed a lawsuit against venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers claiming gender discrimination and retaliation. She lost this spring, but the allegations sent ripples through Silicon Valley.

The issue of why women aren’t getting into tech, however, goes deeper.

At Immaculate Conception Academy, the girls are targeting the problem at its source. The program, called Technovation, was created to challenge societal norms that often push girls away from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

But the solutions are on every rung of the career ladder – from a college that revamped its computer science course to dramatically increase its rates of female graduates to a well-known Internet company that eagerly looks to fill leadership roles with women.

“It’s a series of things that need to take place,” says Elizabeth Ames, vice president of strategic marketing at the Anita Borg Institute. “And there are challenges at every level in the pipeline.”

At all levels, though, the core challenge is changing cultural expectations, says Jenna Carpenter, an associate dean of undergraduate studies at the Louisiana Tech University’s College of Engineering and Science.

“It really does have to be a cultural change,” she says.
 

Code like a girl
Earlier this year, the grand ballroom of Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco gave a glimpse of what that change could look like. Before a crowd of about 400 people, a steady stream of Silicon Valley’s tech glitterati – representing Etsy to Lyft to Pandora – came to the stage. This being the Women 2.0 Awards, they were nearly all women.

“Let’s show the world what Silicon Valley also looks like,” said Shaherose Charania, cofounder and chief executive officer of Women 2.0, at the February event.

The road to expanding that “also” begins in math classrooms like the one at Immaculate Conception Academy. In the past year or so, hundreds of after-school coding courses designed specifically for girls have popped up all over the US. Even their names have a touch of rebellion: Tech Girls, Girls Who Code, and Black Girls Code.

Technovation is a part of that revolution, with a twist. It’s more than just about teaching girls to code. The goal is to have girls develop and build a mobile app that solves a problem in their community.

The intensive 12-week after-school program is a lot of work, says Cynthia. But it has helped her develop new skills.

“It makes me think a lot about how other apps are made, like Instagram,” she says. “They had to have a business plan; they had to think about function.”

That is precisely the point, says Judy Ho, curriculum director.

“It’s an open-ended project, from idea to execution to launch,” she says. “The girls get full ownership right from the beginning.”
What’s more, it gives the young women the chance to see that a job in tech isn’t just about coding.

“We want every girl to think that ‘This is something I can do,’ ” she says. “Not close that door before they even get there.”

Mentoring plays an enormous role. Studies show that middle school girls are particularly prone to opting out of computer science and math programs unless mentors are around to provide support.

Technovation teams are partnered with women (and some men) who work in the industry. Reps from tech powerhouses such as Salesforce and Uber show up weekly.

Margaret Le, an engineering manager at Heroku, a platform services company, is in her third year of volunteering.
“I try not to overcoach them,” she says. “I just want them to feel confident, to have a better sense of self.”

The girl(s) in the room
That is how Harvey Mudd College, a small private school in southern California, made Dylan Baker feel when she applied.

In all, Ms. Baker applied to 13 colleges, with an eye toward computer science. But she chose Harvey Mudd because “I didn’t feel like a girl in the room,” she says about her application process. “I just felt like me.”

There’s a good reason for that. At Harvey Mudd, being a girl in computer science is normal. In 2014, Harvey Mudd made history when it announced that 42 percent of its computer science graduates were women. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Harvey Mudd's 2014 percentage of women graduates.]

That number becomes more noteworthy when compared with trends in computer science education. Women make up 18 percent of all graduates with computer science degrees, according to the US Department of Education – down from 37 percent in 1985.

Experts say the drop could be connected to a number of factors ranging from the perception that girls aren’t interested in STEM fields by the time they reach middle school to marketing. For example, when the newfangled Commodore 64 made its debut in the early 1980s, young boys were the target market of this affordable home computer, not young girls.

Maria Klawe came to Harvey Mudd eight years ago to upend that trend. The school, part of the Claremont College consortium, overhauled its curriculum with a renewed emphasis in humanities. President Klawe revamped the beginning computer science course, making it more welcoming to those who didn’t already hold years of coding experience – like a majority of men do who enter as computer science majors. The course isn’t dumbed down, Klawe says.Instead, it’s taught in a way “to make it much more interesting and less intimidating.”

“The vast majority of women who majored in computer science had no idea they were going to graduate with a degree in computer science when they first came here,” she says.

Even Baker, a sophomore, entered Harvey Mudd thinking she would major in biology – though with an emphasis in computation. But when she took the introductory coding class, everything changed. “It was a basic computer science course, and I loved it,” she says.

She credits the school’s supportive and welcoming environment for women with pushing her toward her major in computational data science.
“The biggest thing Mudd is doing is bringing in women,” she says. “It makes it so much easier to feel supported. Seeing women succeed here is ... everything.”

Change at Change.org
Baker acknowledges that life after Harvey Mudd will be challenging, simply because women are the minority in the tech industry. About 22 percent of entry-level tech employees are women.

But what about advancing once you are through the door?

“There needs to be a focus not just on recruiting, but retaining and advancing,” says Ms. Ames of the Anita Borg Institute.

At the aptly named Change.org, there has been. The online petition site has been a gathering place for people with causes as varied as freeing the Washington Post journalist jailed in Iran or getting Wendy’s to offer a veggie burger. But behind the scenes, the company has become a leading watering hole for women in tech.

In 2013, under CEO Jennifer Dulski, the company set a priority to hire and retain women. Today, 51 percent of company employees, 41 percent of leadership, and 27 percent of the engineering team are women.

The move to recruit women was simply good business, says Ms. Dulski. “It’s really important to make sure we have a diverse team,” she says. “Statistics show that companies with diverse staff perform better.”

According to a 2014 survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., companies that have a more equal balance between men and women deliver better returns on average than their counterparts.

To bring on more women, Change.org relied on good old-fashioned recruiting, but with a focus. It looked to “boot camps” that offer intensive coding coursework – General Assembly and Hackbright Academy – for people who want to boost their skill set or change careers completely. At Change.org, about 20 percent of the engineer team are career-changers, and more than two-thirds of those are women.

Janet Yi is one of the boot camp grads who is now a Change.org engineer. Even during early interviews, Ms. Yi could sense that the culture was different, she says.

“When I went through the recruiting process, there were many women who asked me technical questions,” she says.

The firm also implemented a mentorship program started by the employees. Nearly all the female employees participate. Yi, who is part of the program, says it’s a lifeline when she needs support and a reminder that she has something to offer.

“It’s been great being on both sides of the spectrum,” she says. “Being a mentor makes you realize how far you’ve come.”

Silicon Valley angels
The career within Silicon Valley showing the least amount of growth in attracting women is, in some ways, the lifeblood of the whole community: venture capitalist. VCs hold the purse strings.

Without them, there would be no Twitter or Facebook.

But women make up only 3 percent of VCs. Women are doing better in early-stage investment, known as “angel” investing. This involves providing anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. Women make up about 26 percent of all angel investors. The funds provided by angel investors in 2014 hit $24.1 billion, about half of what VCs spent in the same year.

The Pipeline Fellowship is a part of the angel investing trend. Started in 2011, it is an angel investor boot camp for women. So far, more than 100 women have graduated. The six-month program, which is held in dozens of cities across the US, helps participants learn the fundamentals behind becoming a player in investing. The organization funds businesses started by women social entrepreneurs.

“Putting our money behind a project is very powerful,” says Suzanne Andrews, a 2013 graduate of Pipeline. She and five other graduates recently formed their own firm, Wingpact.

The trend in angel investing is a welcome development, but not enough, says Pipeline cofounder Natalia Oberti Noguera.

“We aren’t being invited to the room,” she says. “I want to push back on that.”

That note of defiance was echoed at Hotel Kabuki during the Women 2.0 event. “We are here to celebrate real innovation,” said host Ms. Charania. “The changing face of the tech entrepreneurs is here.”

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