CEO Tarika Barrett with college students gathered around a Macbook computer.

Tarika Barrett (centre) says that the technology sector struggles to retain female employees.Credit: Girls Who Code

It’s no secret that science, technology, engineering and mathematics have a gender diversity problem. Children as young as six regard girls as being less interested than boys in computer science and engineering (A. Master et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 118, e2100030118; 2021), and girls are less likely than boys to participate in advanced maths and computer-science classes and programmes. In 2021, women represented just 28% of the US computing workforce, according to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology in Boulder, Colorado, and they accounted for 26% of US doctoral degrees granted in maths and computer science, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates.

Exacerbating this disparity are workplace experiences of sexism, racism and other forms of harassment — not to mention the ‘motherhood penalty’. Mothers in the workplace earn less than fathers do, and being a parent decreases women’s chances of promotion as well as their access to professional development opportunities and career growth.

Closing this gender gap will require more than just education and training. It will also require mentorship and a professional network. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Tarika Barrett, an education reformer in New York City and chief executive of the non-profit organization Girls Who Code. The group is one of several that aim to help women from under-represented communities to tap into the social capital necessary for workplace success in computer science.

These groups help students to prepare for interviews, share job opportunities and study collaboratively on advanced courses. Perhaps most importantly, they provide a space for women, trans men and non-binary people, who experience the brunt of gender-based discrimination, to vent and share their workplace struggles. Several of these communities have developed robust online communities on collaboration platforms such as Slack, through which they aim to engage and support their members. “I can’t underscore how important this community is for girls and non-binary people,” Barrett says. “When they’re feeling as though they can’t persist in the field, they have that community to lean on, coupled with their computer-science expertise.”

Nature spoke to the leaders of four such groups about the challenges they face, allyship (see ‘About allyship’) and the need for systemic change.

TARIKA BARRETT: Take action to address the gender gap

Chief executive of Girls Who Code in New York City.

Part of what we do at Girls Who Code is teach computer science. We also work to dispel the notion that girls and people from minority groups don’t have a seat at the table as technologists. It’s about constantly interrogating stereotypes about who belongs in the technology sector and making sure that we provide on-ramps into the industry.

For example, universities don’t prepare students for technical interviews that assess their coding and problem-solving skills. Marginalized students who lack either the social capital or the connections to get this help are left on the sidelines. So, we created an interview-preparation programme to help to level that playing field.

One huge, ongoing challenge is the tech industry’s inability to be welcoming to these young people; another is the punishing work culture, which is rooted in systemic racism and sexism.

That can be alienating for people of colour, especially when they get their first job, but even more so for women of colour, because of the compounding effects of racism and sexism. In 2021, only 5% of US computer-science jobs were held by Black and Latina women, even though Black and Latino/Latina people comprise more than 30% of the population.

We did a survey in 2019 and found that half of the women applying for tech internships either had a negative experience of the industry or knew someone who did. Those experiences ranged from a lack of representation, to sexist and racist comments, to actual harassment. There is a severe retention issue. Half of women leave tech by the age of 35 because they find their workplace inhospitable. When we couple that with some of the challenges around attracting diverse talent, we will keep fuelling a gender gap if we don’t address these challenges. There’s a lot of work to do.

Portrait of Gabriela de Queiroz

Gabriela de Queiroz wants to improve diversity in users of the programming language R.Credit: Gabriela de Queiroz

GABRIELA DE QUEIROZ: Everyone has something to contribute

Founder of R-Ladies and a principal cloud advocate at Microsoft in San Francisco, California.

I moved from Brazil to San Francisco, California, in 2012 to do my second master’s degree in statistics. Soon after, I started going to lots of events to learn about new technology, but networking was hard. As a recent immigrant whose first language is not English, I didn’t feel confident enough to go and talk to people, and I didn’t see anyone at these events who was like me.

After a few months, I wanted to contribute more. People were sharing their knowledge in their spare time, and I wondered, is there anything I can share with others? I wanted to create something more inclusive and more diverse around the statistical programming language R. That’s how R-Ladies came together in 2012.

At one of our first events, we created a study group in which we would work through online courses together. Less than a year later, someone from Taiwan e-mailed saying they wanted to start an R-Ladies chapter in Taipei. Now there are chapters in 216 cities in 61 countries, with more than 100,000 members. We have Slack channels to communicate, and guides and resources to help chapters to stay active.

One key aspect when we set up the community was making sure that everybody felt welcome, no matter their gender, background, ethnicity or anything else. I greet everyone at events, and we explain our code of conduct each time. I have always felt that everyone has something to contribute — and if they’re not included, we as a community are missing out.

Portrait of Tina Lee

Tina Lee wants to give mothers easier access to coding opportunities.Credit: Tina Lee

TINA LEE: Universal childcare is what I dream of

Founder of MotherCoders and is director of special projects at Bitwise Industries in San Francisco, California.

The impetus for starting MotherCoders was recognizing that organizations that offer coding opportunities for girls and people from minority groups don’t always support mothers. There’s often a structural gap in professional development: options such as evening classes, online learning and weekend bootcamps can be inaccessible to people with caregiving responsibilities.

I remember going to a coding workshop over a weekend because the organizers said there was childcare. But it was just a volunteer who pushed my daughter’s stroller around the building; the moment she woke up, she wanted me. I held her in one arm and typed with the other for the rest of the workshop. At lunchtime, when everyone was eating and networking, I took my daughter and her stroller to the only room I could find with a lock and door that wasn’t transparent, because I had to pump and feed her.

I started MotherCoders in November 2013. I spread the word through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, and a few months later we ran a pilot programme in a co-working space in San Francisco that was empty on the weekends. My second child was about six months old then. We had childcare on one side and the mothers learning to code on the other. The arrangement gave them a safe space to learn, and there was no stigma associated with having your child on site. My daughter was there while I taught the classes.

But fundraising was really hard. I knew about the process from community organizing and being involved in politics — my husband and I met on US vice-president Kamala Harris’s first-ever campaign in San Francisco. But trying to raise money from companies and high-net-worth individuals for MotherCoders was a completely different ball game. I was starting from scratch.

In our second year, MotherCoders was a finalist in the Google Impact challenge and received a grant. But we were treading water for a long time. After six years — many of which I worked without a salary — I got tired of pushing this rock up a hill. That is how MotherCoders became the non-profit arm of Bitwise Industries. Bitwise is a for-profit company, but MotherCoders is very mission-aligned with it, in that the company is training underserved communities and running apprenticeships and so on. What really sealed the deal for me is that the firm plans to provide on-site childcare at every centre it operates, which was always my dream. It’s what we need.

Portrait of Caitlin Hudon

Dedicated space is key, says Caitlin Hudon.Credit: Caitlin Hudon

CAITLIN HUDON: Women in technology need their own events and spaces

Founder of ALL the Ladies in Tech and the R-Ladies chapter in Austin, Texas, and a data scientist at Figma in Austin.

When I attended gatherings for women in technology, I kept meeting people who basically should have known each other because they are in the same field, but didn’t. I reached out to the organizers of all these groups and set up a quarterly mega gathering called ALL the Ladies in Tech, at which each group talks about what they have coming up during that period. We make announcements about jobs, training opportunities — anything relevant to this larger community. The goal is to get everyone in the same room to network and learn about all the opportunities.

I also co-founded the R-Ladies chapter in Austin, Texas, which took a lot of forethought and work. It’s not just scheduling an event and hoping people will show up. Trying to understand what will appeal and then changing the content, scheduling or location to fit those parameters is a bit of a learning curve. For instance, we think about what resources we should share after an event. If we do 5-minute ‘lightning talks’, we try to gather all the slides in a GitHub repository so that people can revisit them later.

There’s a lot of bonding over shared experiences, discussions about what roles exist and the work culture at various places. I think sometimes women and people who aren’t as well represented in tech understand the value of this community in a way that other people don’t.

Sometimes men ask why we need these separate communities — why can’t they come too? That’s a question I’ve struggled with over the years. Partly, it’s because of the differences in our day-to-day experience: men are often working with other men on a team, and they’re used to having commonalities with co-workers. But for women and people from minority groups, you have to work harder to meet people like yourself.

Having a dedicated space, in which people can ask questions, get feedback and have the freedom to be more vulnerable than they might be otherwise, is a really healthy, important thing.

Tips for supporting female colleagues

Analyse attendance. Attrition in technology begins in primary school and continues through university. Examining classroom participation can reveal problem areas. “If you’re a professor, look at who’s taking your courses. If you offer CS101, an intermediate class and an advanced one, what are your retention levels?” says Tarika Barrett, the chief executive of Girls Who Code. “Are you seeing patterns of participation and [imbalanced] success that need to change?”

Take more questions from women. Asking questions at conferences helps people to gain confidence. But even when women make up the majority at a meeting, they tend to ask fewer questions than do male attendees. Prioritizing women and people from minority groups can help. Hadley Wickham, chief scientist at software developer Posit in Boston, Massachusetts, noticed that when he spoke at R-Ladies events, “a man would tend to ask the first question and that would lead to fewer questions from other folks”, he recalls. “My simple but seemingly effective hack was to ask men not to ask a question until at least three women [or] non-binary folks had.”

Be transparent. Women in the United States are paid, on average, US$0.80 for every dollar their male colleagues make. One way to close that gap is to remove the veil of secrecy around salary. “I’ve had several male colleagues go out of their way to tell me what they make, so that I can ensure that I’m being paid fairly,” says Caitlin Hudon, a data scientist at Figma in Austin, Texas. That has helped her to negotiate her own benefits more effectively.

Support caregiving. Many tech firms now offer ‘returnships’ — a sort of internship programme for adults looking to re-enter the workforce after a career break. But companies often overlook caregiving responsibilities, and hiring practices tend to be biased towards people “who took a year off to travel the world” rather than returning mothers, says Tina Lee, who founded MotherCoders. “Women cannot access these [programmes] because they cannot leave their kids,” she says. “My dream is to have returnships that automatically ask: do you need childcare?”