Why We Need Diversity Scholarships in Tech

The network of the world's top freelance software developers and designers has launched a scholarship program called Toptal Scholarships for Female Developers, which will award 12 scholarships ($US5000 each) in the next 12 months to help women pursue their technical career dreams.

The cat’s out of the bag: There’s a major gender gap in tech. It’s not shrinking, and it’s hurting the industry. By most estimates, women make up only 30% of the workforce in STEM. The reality is actually much more grim.

Since Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou asked “where are the numbers?” in a viral editorial back in 2013, major players in the tech industry have started publishing their demographics. At Google and Facebook, women make up about a third of the workforce, but they fill only 18% and 16% of the technical roles respectively. Even though Twitter has equal gender representation in non-tech jobs, only 10% of their engineering jobs are held by women representation. This pattern is industry wide.

It’s not always been this way. Of course not, you’re probably thinking. Women have historically always had to fight for greater representation. They’re probably on a slow uphill battle from 0% to 30% and they’ll keep climbing. That’s not what’s been happening though. Thirty years ago, the gender gap in tech was actually smaller both in terms of female representation in tech job and in terms of engineering degrees received. In the 80s, nearly 40% of computer science graduates were women. Now, only 18% are women.

This decline doesn’t make sense. The tech industry is booming and everyone knows it. Just take a look at the surge in rent prices in the Bay Area or the watch the widely popular comedy series Silicon Valley. There’s lots of money and there are lots of jobs, so what’s going on?

According to Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, there are a bunch of deterrents keeping women away from tech, one of the biggest being the widely promulgated idea that tech is a man’s world. From Silicon Valley to the Social Network, tee-shirt clad white guys are the heroes of tech while women are slotted in the role of sidekick. Introductory coding classes are called “Emails for Females” and teen megastores like Abercrombie and Fitch and Forever 21 sell tank tops with sayings like “allergic to algebra” written across their chests.

Now, we’re way past the point of arguing about whether or not women are as smart as men. So, this idea isn’t just harmful in terms of gender equality, it's harmful for the whole industry. Gender balanced teams outperform all-male teams. Businesses with at least one woman in an executive leadership position receive valuations that are 64% larger than those who don’t. Sending the message to women that they aren’t wanted in tech hurts companies’ bottom lines.

Reversing these trends is going to take a lot more than strong recruitment efforts by tech companies. There are too few female computer science grads to reach anything close to gender parity, and female engineers that are on the job market aren’t going to be excited about joining teams that only have other women in non-tech roles. The solution begins with showing girls starting at school level that they are supported in STEM fields both in the classroom and in the work world.

Grace Fish is a writer at Toptal - a marketplace where businesses connect with top software developers and designers. Grace graduated from Princeton in June 2015 with a degree in History and has been living as a digital nomad ever since.​

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