When Elizabeth Walkup was a graduate student at the University of Washington in the early 1990s, she sometimes attended women’s lunches with faculty. She recalls one such event where a female faculty member asked about her career plans once she finished her Ph.D. in computer science.
“My plans depend a lot on whether I have a family or not,” Walkup remembers saying, “and she was furious with me.”
The UW faculty member wanted Walkup to acknowledge the sacrifices that other women had made, helping pave the way for her opportunities. Walkup understood the argument, but was determined to set her own course.
“I know what I want and what was right for me,” said Walkup, who more than two decades later is still in the industry, as a senior software engineer at Tableau Software in Seattle. “I didn’t want there to only be one way.”
As the tech industry wrestles with the shortage of women working in the field, Walkup and her fellow female graduates from 20 years ago are a reminder that there’s no “one way” to be a woman in technology. And likewise there’s no single strategy for solving the gender imbalance.
Challenges for women and minorities in tech have persisted in recent years, despite widespread efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. The spotlight on the problem has intensified in recent weeks, with tech groups holding a series of events on the topic during Women’s History Month, and shareholders pressuring tech giants to close the gender gap in employee compensation.
To better understand these issues, GeekWire interviewed eight University of Washington alumnae who earned computer science degrees in the mid-1990s. By looking back 20 years, our goal was to see the tech world through their eyes — understanding the progress they’ve made individually, and the impediments still in the way as the industry evolves and wrestles with its diversity crisis.
As a group, they are remarkable. Of the eight women who participated in this project, seven are still in technology. Six have children. Five worked at Microsoft at some point in their careers, and three are current employees of the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant. Two have their own tech businesses.
All of them still love technology and believe in its power to solve problems and create world-changing products.
“It’s an absolutely amazing field for women,” said Gail Murphy, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who holds a doctorate in computer science from the UW. “There are so many opportunities and the careers are so diverse.”
The women praised the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering program for its welcoming, supportive environment. At the UW in 1994 and 1995 — when most of the women we interviewed graduated — just 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women, according to longtime UW computer science professor Ed Lazowska, who helped us find past graduates to participate in this project. That rose to 31 percent at the UW in the most recent year.
Progress, right? Yes, but it doesn’t reflect the broader trends in the field.
Over the past two decades, as technology has grown to permeate nearly every facet of our lives, the percentage of women versus men in technology has declined nationally — both in terms of women earning university degrees, as well as women holding tech jobs.
Research shows that roughly equal numbers of girls pursue math and science classes during grade-school years. But a study published in the current issue of Computing in Science & Engineering shows that the fraction of women relative to men earning computer-related degrees has decreased dramatically, particularly the pursuit of bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In 1990, about 30 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded nationwide in computer science went to women. The number fell to half that amount, about 15 percent, by 2013. Computer engineering paints an even bleaker picture, with the fraction of degrees awarded to women hovering around 10 percent, according to research from The Ohio State University and the nonprofit Computing Research Association. Information technology degrees have likewise dropped for women.
“The [university] pipeline is still unarguably a problem,” said Laura Sherbin, chief financial officer and director of research for the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think tank focused on workplace diversity.
There’s also a lot of ground to regain in the industry, as the percentage of women in computer jobs has slipped downward over the past two decades.
In ’95, roughly 31 percent of computer and mathematics jobs nationwide were held by women. Ten years later, that number dropped to 27.5 percent. Last year the fraction of women in these jobs hit 25 percent, according to a GeekWire analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Women graduate from college, get a tech job and typically leave the industry between seven and 10 years later, said Kieran Snyder, co-founder and CEO of Textio, a Seattle startup whose products include a tool to make job listings more women-friendly.
“The popular story is women leave when they have kids,” Snyder said. But when she interviewed more than 700 women who quit their tech careers, she found that “while it’s true that many left when they had kids, very few wanted to [leave].”
The problem, she said, was that “the industry is not super hospitable to parents or to women.”
When women leave technology jobs, Sherbin said, “they’re not running away [from the workforce]. They run to friendlier sectors.”
In that way, the women who participated in this project are unusual — a collective case study in how to buck the trend. The fact that seven of the eight UW grads whom GeekWire interviewed are still in the tech field is due in part to the reality that we were only able to contact alumnae whom the university was able to track down and who agreed to the article, creating a self-selected group.
Most of the UW graduates interviewed did have children, and devised a variety of ways to find a work-life fit. They sought more flexible jobs in academic settings or worked for a tiny startup founded by friends. Some stuck with companies for a decade or more in order to negotiate part-time positions, or to avoid the pressure of having to work long hours in order to prove themselves in new companies.
“I feel very fortunate,” said Walkup, who found part-time work for much of her career. “This is not the norm at all.”
Reflecting on their careers, the women graduates said they didn’t feel intentionally discriminated against for their gender, but did point to the potential role of “unconscious bias” in their treatment and possibly even their promotions. One woman worried that her gender could affect her ability to move into more senior positions.
“In Seattle or [Silicon] Valley or Boston, nobody will overtly discriminate against you. It’s more the subtle stuff,” said Radhika Thekkath, who graduated with Walkup.
It’s a culture that was created by men for men, said Telle Whitney, CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute, which annually hosts the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women In Computing Conference, the largest tech conference for women.
Female employees may be inclined to leave a company if they feel out of place or don’t see a path for advancement, she said. “If they don’t look up and see women in upper management, it makes them wonder if they belong.”
Some of the UW alumnae said they didn’t apply for promotions because of concerns about balancing more senior roles with motherhood.
In general, female candidates often don’t go for a job because they don’t think they’re qualified or believe they’re ineligible, Snyder and Sherbin said.
Women, it turns out, tend to only apply for positions for which they meet all of the job requirements, while men apply even if they’re not a perfect match. So while management might think they’re offering a level playing field to male and female candidates, the genders aren’t viewing the opportunities the same way.
For Thekkath, the bias wasn’t at her workplace, but within tech’s venture capital system. After working in leadership roles in tech companies, six years ago she began a startup in Silicon Valley. Thekkath has gone outside of the traditional VC system in order to find financial support.
“If you’re not a 25-year-old white or Indian male in the valley, then you don’t fall in the standard bucket,” Thekkath said. “The VCs don’t know what to do with you, to put it kindly.”
The UW graduates generally agreed that the tech workplace was largely hospitable and had improved over time. There was less foul language, they felt more comfortable dressing in feminine clothes if they chose to, and there was an effort to make sure their voices were heard.
But UW alumna Denise Draper worried that testosterone-fueled “brogrammers” were taking the workplace culture in the wrong direction.
“The feeling we’ve gone backwards disturbs me very much,” said Draper, who earned a doctorate in ’95. The downward trajectory of women seeking computer degrees and jobs could keep going, creating “the snowball effect in reverse.”
And the male-bent to the tech culture can be subtle.
Gail Alverson, who finished her Ph.D. in ’90, recently began working for Microsoft. She visited the company’s store looking for gifts for her three daughters, who are in their late teens and early 20s, and whom she has encouraged to pursue science and tech careers. She was disappointed to find that practically everything in the store had “geek” emblazoned on it.
“Geek, I don’t think to girls, has a great connotation,” she said. “They don’t want to be perceived as a geek, and I don’t think the guys have a problem with that.”
Women in tech can get caught in a tough position of fitting into the male-oriented culture of the industry with its geekiness and encouragement to “lean in.” Or they can work to shift the environment to be more welcoming to women and allow them to be their authentic selves while still attaining professional success.
For her part, Snyder is seeing some pushback against the machismo tech personae, at least at the level of job listings. The brogrammer clichés — words like “ninja, rock star and kickass” — are disappearing from want ads.
Job listings will be mocked and even go viral for being offensive, she said. “If you’re writing in an overtly ‘bro-y’ way, you’re going to get pilloried.”
Some of the UW graduates have been taking a closer look at those listings in recent years. For many of them, their children are grown and they’re looking forward to having more time and energy available to seek bigger roles at work. Or they just feel ready for new challenges and more leadership positions.
Whitney, of the Anita Borg Institute, is optimistic that the downward trend for women in tech could soon reverse.
Companies are partnering with her organization to implement meaningful policies to promote women into leadership positions, Whitney said, and trying to create career pathways that are attractive to women. Universities including the UW, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, are seeing returns from their efforts to attract women to computer science. Businesses are measuring and tracking their success in this area and company leaders are backing the initiatives.
But the broader shift to make tech jobs more female-friendly will take time.
“If you’re really looking to make cultural changes, this is not going to be a simple problem you can fix in a year,” Whitney said. But the smart companies are realizing that building a more diverse workforce is not only the right thing to do, but essential to their success.
“The best of them realize this is key to their business and key to their future,” Whitney said. “They need to make these changes to survive.”
Listen below to this week’s GeekWire radio show and podcast, featuring Elizabeth Walkup, senior software engineer at Tableau Software, who received her Ph.D. in computer science from the UW in 1995; and journalist Lisa Stiffler.