Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Women are under-represented in tech, and 50% of them leave the industry by 35: Here's how this non-profit wants to change things

A woman working in the technology industry. Caption: “Women make up only 26% of all computing roles," says Tarika Barrett, CEO of the international non-profit Girls Who Code.

“Women make up only 26% of all computing roles," says Tarika Barrett, CEO of the international non-profit Girls Who Code. Image: Unsplas/hristina @ wocintechchat.comh

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Women are under-represented in the tech sector, but the non-profit 'Girls Who Code' aims to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech roles by 2030.
  • Its CEO, Tarika Barrett, told the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings 2023 about the organization’s initiatives, as well as the personal stories that have made her who she is today.
  • Changing how tech companies think about hiring and talent pools will be key to boosting female representation, she says.

Walk into a company's premises not involved in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Take 10 employees at random, and it's likely that 5 will be women and 5 will be men.

Now, head to a company packed with STEM workers, and pick 10 random employees. How many do you think will be women?

The answer is three, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

It’s a fact known all too well by Tarika Barrett, CEO of the international non-profit Girls Who Code, which aims to close the gender gap in new entry-level tech roles by 2030.

“Women make up only 26% of all computing roles, and for Black and Latinx women, the statistics are even worse – combined, they make up roughly about 5% of all computing jobs,” she recently told the World Economic Forum’s recently concluded Sustainable Development Impact Meetings (SDIM) 2023.

A chart showing the percentage of women employed in different sectors and at different levels of seniority.
The share of female employment is below average in the tech sector. Image: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2023

Since Girls Who Code was founded in 2012, it has helped 580,000 girls and women learn computer programming. The organization is also pushing other initiatives to achieve gender parity in the tech sector, as Barrett detailed in her interview for SDIM 2023. Here are some highlights:

Why is it important to get more women and girls working in technology?

It’s incredibly important to have girls in tech, because our tech workforce needs to be representative of our communities and our world. Right now, girls grow up seeing archetypes of male technologists – Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates. They don't hear about Katherine Johnson or Mary Jackson or Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper, so they don't see themselves represented.

Tech today very much represents the priorities of a privileged few who often share a singular perspective, and those are the folks who are benefitting the most right now. When women and girls and non-binary people and people of colour enter the tech workforce, they become the creators, the change-makers. They advocate for the kind of tech that really meets those wider needs and interests.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

What are the main barriers to women and girls getting into the tech sector?

Half of women say they lack female role models in tech. A third of women say they lack the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And when we look at tech leadership, women make up only 5%. And if we're talking about Black and Latinx CEOs of Fortune 500 tech companies, that number is zero.

Companies need a diversity of perspective to be effective, but they continue to fail to attract and retain diverse talent. Girls Who Code did a study with Accenture and found that 50% of women end up leaving the tech force by the age of 35, many of them saying that they found their workplace to be inhospitable or that it lacked female role models. And we see this not only for women further along in their careers but also for some of the youngest women just entering the field.

Around 50% of women end up leaving the tech force by the age of 35, many of them saying that they found their workplace to be inhospitable.

Girls Who Code did a study in 2019 and 50% of respondents said they had either experienced or knew a woman who had experienced discrimination. This ranged from sexist and racist comments all the way to blatant harassment, and these were young women who were just embarking on their careers.

Some of them had gone through 5 to 10 rounds of interviews without seeing a single woman or a woman of colour. When you think about that environment characterizing our companies – and remember that every company is almost a tech company now – we have a serious issue.

What is your personal experience when it comes to the barriers facing women in the tech sector?

Part of my journey in becoming CEO of Girls Who Code was when I was working at the New York City Department of Education. I had a chance to lead the team that would design and launch New York City's first high school focused on software engineering. That’s when I saw the barriers facing girls up close and personal.

Central to that project were issues of equity. When we were first approached to build that high school, the vision was to model it on one of the most elite schools in New York City. We pushed back and said that we wanted any student, regardless of their background, to have the opportunity to learn how to code.

Girls want to give back to their communities – they want to do something with purpose, they want to change the world. Very often our society paints an archetype of a tech leader, and part of what we've had to do with Girls Who Code is change the image of what a computer scientist or a technologist looks like.

Our girls and young women are powerful role models in that regard. They know they can pursue their passions and the intersection of that with technology, and that they can also earn a living for themselves, their families and their community. It doesn't have to be this strange dichotomy that we often see play out in our society.

Very often our society paints an archetype of a tech leader, and part of what we've had to do with Girls Who Code is change the image of what a computer scientist or a technologist looks like.

One of our alumni, Karina Popovich, galvanized a coalition of 3D printer owners during the pandemic and she called it Makers for COVID-19. They came together across the world and manufactured thousands and thousands of units of personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

Karina did that of her own volition because she saw this issue and wanted to tackle it, and we have so many stories like that – students who've brought their creativity, who’ve brought their passion, and who understand where that connects with technology. Not only do they see a future for themselves where they'll be able to support themselves financially by working in tech, but they're also giving back and tackling these intractable issues that we sometimes, as grown-ups, think we can't manage at all.

How can tech companies make themselves more inclusive and more welcoming places for women and minority groups?

I think one big thing that companies can do is to broaden the scope of where they look for strong candidates. There's an overreliance sometimes on four-year university courses or Ivy League institutions, but we know that half of the women we serve at Girls Who Code come from historically underrepresented groups.

These are young women who are passionate and resilient, who are often juggling childcare responsibilities or caregiving, a full course load and also working. They are the embodiment of bravery and resilience – the very qualities that these companies are desperate to have in their workforce but which don't always show up in traditional academic credentials.

I went to a City University of New York school, and I know that I may not have been given the time of day at some of these companies who overly rely on other pools for their candidates. That's one of the reasons why at Girls Who Code, we’ve got involved in workforce programming.

A chart showing how many more women would be employed in tech if recruitment practices were more inclusive.
The tech sector could become more inclusive by changing the way it looks for potential employees. Image: Girls Who Code/Accenture

One thing I am particularly proud of is that we launched hiring summits. We have done five of them since the start of the pandemic and have welcomed in thousands of girls and other students. They got a chance to be in front of hundreds of employers who may not have readily identified this as their pool of candidates.

One company that came to our first hiring summit actually hired 17 young women. Fast-forward and they now have hired over 100 Girls Who Code alumni. When you see the behaviour of a company like that, it tells me that they want to be first and not last, and that the way that they're thinking about talent is different and that they have a growth mindset. They are ready to transform their company, their company's culture, and to really take advantage of this incredible talent that we often leave on the table.

What else do girls need to get careers in tech?

At Girls Who Code, our programming starts as early as third grade all the way through college and into the workforce. We have free afterschool clubs where girls learn to code in a safe environment, and they are part of what we call the sisterhood, where they lean on each other and they see themselves represented. It sparks and ignites a passion. We also offer an intensive programme during the summer.

Our biggest growth engine was the free afterschool clubs, but they practically evaporated during the pandemic. We knew that we couldn't have our most marginalized students being left behind, so we regrouped, surveyed them to ask what they needed, and their feedback – along with best practice in terms of digital learning – became the foundation of our virtual programming, which we're still doing today.

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It’s a mix of synchronous and asynchronous project-based learning, group learning, and we've watched our students thrive as a result, because, let's be honest, some students weren't doing that great in terms of in-person instruction. That's one of the reasons we've decided not to revert back to how things were before. We’re serving 200% more students now, and we’re reaching more students in poor and rural areas than ever before.

Programmes like our technical interview prep, our leadership academy, our work prep, our hiring summit all have a role to play in making sure these young people get that dream job that they've been thinking about. And that sisterhood we've built that starts as early as third grade and goes all the way through to the workforce is one that has really driven persistence and has allowed our young women and nonbinary students to thrive.

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