Counting our way to gender equality

Counting our way to gender equality
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We work at opposite ends of a technology pipeline. As the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma works to bring more girls into computer science. As a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, Jessica works to implement policies throughout the technology and communications industries that account for one-sixth of the new economy.

And yet, as we’re crisscrossing the country to visit computer science classrooms or the boardrooms of our nation’s biggest tech companies, we see the same problem: a jarring lack of women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

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We also see the same solution, one that would help us address the gender gap at every stage along the pipeline: data. We need thorough data collection combined with accurate data reporting to help us understand how we might start to improve the gender gap at every stage along the pipeline, from the classroom to the boardroom. Data comes before policy and it comes before progress.

 

But try to dig up diversity statistics for K-12 computer science classrooms and you’ll almost certainly come up short. That’s because only one state in the entire country — Pennsylvania — records and reports the gender and racial diversity of it’s computer science classrooms. But imagine if many more did. Then consider what could do if we understood the makeup of those who opt in to computer science classrooms, the rate at which girls and students of color drop out and when. In short, this kind of data can lay the groundwork for thoughtful change.  

We have the same problem in our workforce — companies may record data, but they rarely release the nitty-gritty details to the public. Today, only 3.2 percent of Fortune 500 companies release complete data for the race and gender of their employees in each job category and management level.

We cannot overstate the impact that plain, simple, boring data reporting can have in our fight to close the gender gap in tech. After all, it’s impossible to close gaps when we don’t know how big they are.

Back in 2014, a handful of major tech companies released their diversity data for the first time. They got this effort started and deserve credit for that. The numbers, however, were bleak. The news sparked outrage, and then — action. The companies, held accountable for the first time, started to take small steps to increase diversity — such as changing their interview processes and hosting unconscious bias trainings.

But we have a long we to go. We need this kind of data tracking and reporting to be more thorough and more consistent if we’re truly going to create a more diverse tech workforce. As they say, what gets measured gets managed. In this case, it is what gets measured and made public that gets managed.

For that reason, Girls Who Code released the first-ever comprehensive policy agenda outlining policy recommendations designed specifically to attract girls in K-12 to, and retain them in, computer science. Our organization is working with states to change reporting requirements to make the diversity of our computer science classrooms more transparent. If we can get a sense of the actual diversity within classrooms, we can create policies that encourage girls and minorities to participate in computer science.

And for that reason, as a commissioner at the FCC, who has seen the lack of women and specifically, women of color, in labs, corporate boardrooms and at her own agency, is calling for the FCC to update and release its own data, which it hasn’t done since the Obama Administration. Jessica has also championed efforts to address the Homework Gap and ensure that every student has the internet access they need to do homework today, a problem the Senate Joint Economic Committee recently found affects 12 million school children nationwide.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson once said, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed ... anything that could be counted, I did.”  

By counting, collecting, and computing data, Johnson helped propel the first American into space, land us on the moon, and launch the Space Shuttle program.

If Katherine Johnson could count her way to the moon, we can count our way to equality in tech.

Jessica Rosenworcel has served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission since 2012. Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Girls Who Code.