NEW YORK CITY - New York City wants to be the next American tech powerhouse, and to get there it is tripling its investment in programs for computer science students.
In the middle of the East River, on Roosevelt Island, one of the keys to the city’s tech future is being built: Cornell Tech. When it’s complete, it will house 2,000 graduate students and hundreds of faculty and staff as well as an ecosystem of companies, researchers and entrepreneurs.
Cornell Tech has also partnered with the City University of New York (CUNY) and other tech leaders to launch Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY) to prepare young women for careers in technology and help fill the gender gap in America’s tech fields.
Why not women?
Thirty-five years ago, a third of computer science degrees went to women, according to Accenture, a leader in technology services. Now that number is 20 percent.
Brittany Greve, a first year STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) student at Hunter College in New York City, says “the expectation of young women when they are growing up isn’t necessarily to do anything in STEM, no one pushes them in that direction.”
Greve is one of a handful of women at Hunter in a curriculum that is male-dominated. She says that’s changing slowly.
“We know that this isn’t going to happen in a year or two years,” she said, “it will probably take a decade to make the change. We have to keep pushing back when people say that women aren’t supposed to be in STEM.”
Accenture supports women in tech in New York and across the United States by making 40 percent of its new hires women. Lynn McMahon, Accenture’s managing director for the New York metro area, talked about her company’s approach to getting more women interested in technology.
“One of the things our company is trying to understand is what works at the college level, pre-college level, high school, and even as far back as junior high,” she said. “We want to help women and girls envision that this is the place they want to be.”
Other industry partners, such as Kickstarter, Viacom, Genome, LearnVest, Bloomberg and Google, are committed to expanded training and job opportunities for both women and men.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates there will be 1.1 million computing-related job openings in the U.S. by 2024. The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) believes only about 40 percent of these jobs will be filled by people with degrees from U.S. colleges and universities.
In 2016 the federal government allowed U.S. companies to sponsor 65,000 foreigners with at least a bachelor’s degree from any university, and 20,000 more visas went to individuals with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.
NCWIT and other organizations want to help more Americans compete for these jobs, especially women.
Terry Morreale, NCWIT associate director says educators need to do their part.
“Computer science is not offered in all high schools,” Morreale said. “In fact computer science is not even considered a part of a core curriculum in many high schools. And, there are definitely schools that have no computer science classes at all.”
She believes that the federal government could help solve this educational problem.
“At the very least,” she said, “everyone should have a fundamental understanding of computing.”
In the meantime, the organization Girls Who Code is stepping in.
Noting that at age 13 to 17, girls lose interest in computing, Girls Who Code began offering a year-long program to teenage girls. It runs after-school clubs, monthly workshops, and special presentations by industry role models.
NCWIT also has middle school programs for girls, including after-school programs, summer camps, clubs, and weekend conferences. One program, “Aspiration in Computing,” is involved in talent development, leadership opportunities, scholarships and internships for technically inclined young women. Many corporations also participate nationally in providing internships for young women.
Over time, these programs hope to raise the number of female freshmen or university undergraduates who enroll in computing programs above the current national figure of 4 percent. In New York State, it’s worse: Dr. Carlos Medina, vice chancellor of diversity at the State University of New York (SUNY), says “only 1 percent of women at the nation’s largest public university is prepared or wants to get involved in computers.”
Even with the incentives of good pay and interesting work, women, especially women of color, are essentially absent from technology innovation.
According to Scientific American, African American women make up 3 percent of the computing workforce, female Hispanics are 1 percent, and Asian women are 5 percent.
According to Google’s Computer Science research, minority women won’t embrace the field until they see more people like themselves, making them feel more welcome and less anxious. And, most important, all groups need to understand that opportunities await them.