Happy International Women’s Day
Today is the 99th annual International Women’s Day, and an opportunity to discuss an issue that should concern all of us: the lack of women in computing. Even though we’ve made slight progress recently—according to data shared by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT)—in 2008 only 18 percent of all computer science degrees were earned by women. This is a dramatic drop from 37 percent in 1985. Closely related is the fact that girls represented only 17 percent of those who took advanced placement computer science exams, making it the AP exam with the lowest female representation. Given these two statistics, perhaps it isn’t surprising that only 16 percent of Fortune 500 technology companies have female corporate officers, and that women hold less than a quarter of the technology jobs, even though they hold more than half of all professional occupations in the U.S. Of greater concern, since there are fewer women in the field, when technology companies are hiring, even during an economic downturn, there are fewer female candidates.
Diversity and parity are important social indicators. Additionally, diversity of thought is a clear business necessity for innovation and thought leadership. In fact, statistics on U.S. technology patenting show that the patents created by mixed-gender teams are the most highly cited, a testament to their innovation, usefulness and, ultimately, profitability.
Front and center in this arena is computer science. A very creative field, it requires diversity of thought to thrive. And that’s where I come in. I have the best job at Microsoft: My job is to help improve these numbers and make sure the issue of too few women in this field is as obsolete as the mainframe computer. It’s a big job, to be sure, but one I love.
In addition to working internally at Microsoft to ensure that we continually foster an environment that values diversity, passion and ingenuity, I also conduct outreach to organizations ranging from the NCWIT’s Academic Alliance Seed Fund (through which Microsoft contributes to the gender diversity activities of colleges and universities in the US), the ABI’s Grace Hopper Conference, the CRA-W Grad Cohort for Women Program, and many other computing communities around the world.
I’m old enough to know that change isn’t always easy. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright impossible. So whenever I find myself in a discouraging moment, I just focus on a special person: my 90 year-old mother. When she was born, your outlook meant your attitude, nobody had a car, and electricity was a luxury. Today, she uses e-mail to keep in touch with her grandchildren and friends and checks her stock portfolio regularly on the Internet. She is curious and she is brave. This inspires me, not only because she’s my mother, but because it shows that people can learn, that innovation and creativity are part of the human fabric, and that it can happen for everyone.
Jane Prey, PhD, is a senior research program manager with Microsoft Research External Research. She is also an active member of IEEE, with which Microsoft is collaborating to empower students to achieve their professional aspirations.