Envisioning Exclusion: Why She Switched Her Major

With this post, we are initiating Diversity University, an occasional series on the connection between the non-cognitive choices college students make and the jobs for which they will be qualified when they graduate—diversity qualified, that is. This is a huge topic; we will highlight research that made us think.

Envisioning the goal

Where do most college students dream of working? You can probably guess.  Maybe you can close your eyes and see the Google logo.  For a large number of students, the dream job is in tech, which we’ll define here as hard and software-producing companies synonymous with innovation, research and development. In 2015,  a job at Google was ranked number one among millennials. Why? Tech is the future, and that’s exciting. The major companies offer excellent training, high salaries, and seemingly infinite opportunities for growth. Don’t forget great benefits and beautiful offices in desirable  locations. No wonder Forbes Magazine calls tech, “sexier than anything else.”

Knowing how to reach it

What’s the best college major for getting there? The answer to this one is obvious, too.  According to one undergraduate blogger it’s, “computer science or anything with ‘computer’ or ‘software’ in it’s name.” Other majors are desirable, but the demand for computer programmers alone is projected to exceed supply until 2020.

Losing sight

And yet, there are hardly any women  in tech. [*] Many write off the lack of gender diversity in tech as a pipeline issue—a dearth of female students interested in studying STEM subjects.  But studies show women outnumber men in their introductory computer science courses. That’s important pipeline news. Women are also more likely than men to switch out of their STEM majors. In fact, almost a third of women in college will change from STEM majors before they graduate. The question is, why does she start out interested and then leave?

A vision of inclusion that fades

Research tells us that it’s not because men are better students in these fields or that women lack the study habits of their male peers. Rather, it appears that it gets harder and harder for her to envision a career in the field that once interested her. The lack of a support system for women in STEM, classroom bias in favor of male students, and stereotype threat, anxiety that her behavior might confirm—to others or even to herself— negative stereotypes about women in tech all contribute to her decision to forgo a career in tech altogether.

A vision of exclusion that sharpens

Put on the spectacles of a female college student; one that’s met the challenges and is doing well. Sadly, here’s what you might see: Men dominate tech.  In 2014, women held only 26% of computing jobs at ten major tech companies.  And according to a Silicon Valley [SV] analysis organization, men in SV tech earn 61% more than women. Even if a woman in tech swallows the wage disparity, she may be in for a distinctly female-UNfriendly experience. In fact, women are very likely to leave the field.

Looking through her lens

Leaders of the tech industry say they want her. If that’s true, they should take a look through her lens at culture where she may not feel welcome, may have to work harder to be perceived as competent as her male peers.  She’ll find few role models of her gender, and she may get paid less.  It’s a dark vision that industry leaders need to try harder to brighten.

[*] We will examine the issue of people of color in the tech industry in another post.

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Alison Akant
Founder
& Chief Content Officer

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