Changing The Tech Gender Ratio One CS Student at a Time

Steve Boese Candidate Pool, College Recruiting, Culture, Diversity, HR, Recruiting, Retention

For quite some time now there has been increased attention on the comparative lack of women in technology companies and in technology roles across most companies generally. This underrepresentation of women in the tech industry and in these high tech jobs has many implications, most of them negative – organizational culture that degrades as ‘brogrammers’ dominate tech firms, the gender wage imbalance continues as many of these tech jobs are extremely well compensated, and finally becomes self-perpetuating as the typical feeder systems for these jobs, college computer science programs, remain mostly male.

 This problem with imbalance and female underrepresentation in the computer science program was noticed back in the 1990s at Carnegie Mellon University, and the steps that the university took to address this situation have been documented in a recently published paper. In addition to offering ideas for other universities still struggling with this issue, the work at Carnegie Mellon provides some ideas that organizations can consider for assistance in addressing any type of recruiting, retention, and advancement of underrepresented groups in their organizations.

So what were the basic steps that Carnegie Mellon took that increased the percentage of female computer science majors from 7% in 1995 to 42% by the year 2000?

The has a great summary of the program that was implemented, the high points of which are excerpted below with some thoughts about how this college recruiting and retention plan could have more general applicability for organizations:

1. Outreach to high schools – CMU engaged over 15% of all the Advanced Placement computer science high school teachers with a key component of the educational outreach program being content aimed at improving instruction to focus on gender equity. The lesson for organizations more generally? The pipeline needs to start changing earlier and earlier. The people you recruit come from somewhere, how can you improve and enhance the pool of candidates before they are even candidates?

2. A more inclusive admissions process – CMU started to emphasize potential for success in the CS program and lessened the requirements for demonstrated programming ability. This took into account that the pipeline and feeder system from high schools was not yet producing gender balanced AND experienced students. While working on that problem, (see point 1), they knew that taking steps to account for the disparity in their admissions process would be necessary to begin to move the needle. The connection to all organizations’ challenges is clear: If you are not getting the type and mix of people you want, you have to alter your assessment process.

3. Broaden the scope of early coursework – Recruiting and admitting more female students into the CS program was only the first step, CMU had to take additional measures to try and improve female student success. One of these measures was to create broader, more exploratory courses that helped students understand some of the bigger picture applications of their studies. This in turn, helped retention and increased degree completion. What might this mean for your organization? Perhaps creating or adopting a more flexible or fluid approach to job design and project assignment for your underrepresented populations, ones that will enable and encourage them to find their best fit in your organization, versus having to try and fit themselves into pre-existing roles.

4. Programs to change the culture – Once recruiting, retention, and course content were examined, CMU thought more about the culture of the CS program. One of the steps they took was to create a mentorship programs, a place and structure for female CS students to support each other, and included outreach to community and industry leaders. Lots of organizations could benefit from building the needed programs and support networks that might be needed to ensure success for new employees that perhaps in the past would not have succeeded in the organization from lack of support, role models, and mentors.

The Carnegie Mellon story is a successful and illustrative one. It helps us see that even the most stubborn and seemingly intractable recruiting and retention challenges can be addressed with the right mindset, a willingness to question and change existing processes, and by prioritizing these efforts that often are easily pushed aside for more short-term and immediate concerns.

What are you doing in your organization to address these kinds of challenges?