Women make up just a quarter of computing roles and continue to be underrepresented in collegiate tech departments. Meanwhile, both rates are declining. An idea for reversing that trend: Bring them into a supportive community, sooner.
When West Chester-based Dr. Kristin Austin entered Bloomsburg University in 1999, she knew she wanted to end up in higher education in some form. She came to admire the work college leadership professionals did with students, and knew she found her niche as she started to take on those roles herself, including as an admissions director and head of new student programs for different universities.
Today, Austin is the director of I.D.E.A.S — that’s inclusion, diversity, equity and access — for Rewriting the Code (RTC), a nonprofit that aims to increase the representation of women in tech careers by intervening at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her online community currently consists of approximately 13,000 women majoring in college and graduate school programs, said the Ed.D.
“K-12 has many STEM awareness-building groups and opportunities, but the disconnect happens once women get to college and actually declare a tech-related major, so that is where I wanted to invest my attention,” Davis said.
During a recent AMA interview on Technical.ly’s Slack, Austin shared insight on her professional journey, women finding space in tech education, pay equity for women technologists and more. This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.
What are some reasons you find that women don’t declare tech-related majors?
Generally speaking, women enroll in introductory tech classes at similar rate as do men, especially so at institutions where computer science courses are a general education requirement. Furthermore, women tend to perform better than men in those intro courses. However, when it comes to converting the women into full majors, many do not because they report experiences of exclusion, microaggressions, lack of representation, imposter syndrome and lack of support.
Their persistence in the major is not a matter of grades, but a matter of inclusion and belonging. That’s what I want to disrupt.
What are some misconceptions you find higher education professionals have most about making college a more inclusive experience for people of less represented backgrounds?
First, the college culture caters to socioeconomically secure, traditional aged, able-bodied, generational college students. If you don’t fit those criteria, you face numerous hurdles that are seen and unseen. The pandemic is certainly changing all of that, and higher ed is being forced to really see student diversity for what it really is versus what is presented on brochures.
Colleges are learning (or, should be learning) new and innovative ways to accommodate and include what students really need. This is everything from offering more online learning options, to even restructuring how we measure and define learning. Getting rid of standardized entrance requirements, for example, is a huge win. We will see if that continues post-pandemic.
With your own firm, K.E.Advancement, part of your work is helping families get their kids to college. How significant is it for first-generation college students interested in tech to make that jump in 2021? I ask particularly because we hear of new bootcamps opening up in Philly and elsewhere so frequently.
When I meet with first-generation college students, one of my first questions is always, “Have you thought about computer science?” Many first-gen students default to more visible or “obvious” careers because they haven’t seen behind the scenes opportunities. For this reason, I bring it up. I lead with, “Every job is a tech job,” because it is! I help them to see how they utilize tech in their day-to-day lives, and how tech can offer seismic changes in their family, and the generations to come. I love seeing the light bulbs go off!
Bootcamps, as long as they are financially accessible, are amazing jump starts! I refer students to bootcamps to test the waters all the time! It’s no secret that higher ed is not known for innovation. Industry is known for innovation, but not higher ed. The pandemic painfully revealed this. Look how hard higher ed struggled to pivot when we had to move online.
I would attribute this to the fact that higher ed never anticipated being challenged by YouTube, industry specific training and colleges, upskilling and all other self-taught modalities. I think higher ed thought they would always be like water: irreplaceable. Tech is proving that is not the case. There will always be a place for higher education, but I don’t think that place will always look like what it has for the past so many years.
How does having fewer women in computer science majors affect the way in which women technologists are compensated for their work?
Freshly coming off of Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, this is a great question. This is an area I am still researching. In general, women do not have pay parity with men, and the gap is even greater for women of color. That said, because tech is working toward including more women in the workplace, I am seeing a lot of incentives and pay transparency and equity in the latest hiring practices. So that is very positive!
The organization I work for, Rewriting the Code, just wrapped our Career Summit. We had over 50 companies — all of Big Tech plus tons of startups — all there drooling over the chance to hire the talent of RTC. There were so many jobs and internships that the students attending the summit could barely keep up with submitting their resume. That is a good problem to have!
I will add, though, that we are also teaching the women in RTC to look at all forms of compensation. We teach them to negotiate non-monetary benefits, too, because we want our women to know that pay is important, but so is frequent time off, work-life balance and the freedom to volunteer!
What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing or pivoting into tech careers?
My advice is to find community! Community exists in abundance online, but maybe not always in the physical. And that’s OK! Join online social groups and spaces that are likeminded and safe. There, you can encourage, uplift, and find solidarity.
My organization exists entirely online and the women report feeling more connected to their RTC peers than their own fellow, in-person majors. So the big takeaway is to find community. It takes a village to raise a child, and a goal!
You can join or just follow along with conversations like this one in the #ama channel on our public Slack. Coming up on Thursday, Aug. 26, Technical.ly reporters Holly Quinn and Paige Gross will lead a discussion with women-in-tech meetup organizers from across the mid-Atlantic.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.