US, Especially Tech, Should Show Leadership on Gender Equality

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The World Economic Forum recently released its ‘World Gender Gap’ report, which ranks countries according to how they rate for gender equality based on representation in government, the workplace, and access to health care and education.

So how did the US do?

23rd place.

That puts it behind Lesotho and Nicaragua, the Philippines, Cuba, and Burundi.

The low ranking is alarming, especially given America's assumed dominance in the global political economy and its role as a cross-border cultural arbiter. When you consider that the domestic technology industry is a major exporter of inventions and ideas, the concern over this country’s poor performance on gender equality should become only more acute. For these reasons, it is urgent that the US should take gender equality seriously, and start to build a society in which women are well-represented in all sectors – tech included.

Extensive data clearly show that society benefits when women are equal participants. In developing countries, children are healthier and families are more stable when women are allowed access to education. There’s growing evidence that companies with female board members perform better than those without.

In technology in particular, it’s important to note that, as Derek Khanna points out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, women are the “larget single economic force not just in the United States, but in the world,” and comprise half of the planet’s potential “user base.”

Purchasing power, however, isn’t nearly the most important argument for gender equality in tech. The point lost amidst the data about women’s ability to buy stuff and bring an empathic touch to the workplace is that we deserve equal opportunity because it is right.

The technology industry has the room, and indeed the responsibility, to lead the charge toward gender parity. In recent months, Silicon Valley has been indicted repeatedly for being bad for women: from industry conferences dominated by childish, sexist pranks, to Bustle’s much sneered-at launch, to increasingly loud complaints about the culture of ‘bro-gramming’, and frat-house antics at tech companies.

Unfortunately, for much of the last three decades, the numbers of women in tech have been on a steady decline. Though there has been a hopeful upsurge since 2009, we’re still far from having an equal voice – let alone equal access to the code, platforms, and products that are helping to shape society.

This problem isn’t as easy to fix as merely changing behaviour or mindset, as Lean In might have us believe. Improving the gender balance in tech requires radicalizing or reforming how we work: permitting men and women to devote time to family; diving into the delicate re-setting of assumptions about supposed gender-specific competencies; and advocating for educational reform that acknowledges that the lack of female representation in STEM degree programs and professions is a serious problem.

It will take years to achieve a semblance of gender balance in tech, but here are a few projects and people seeking to bump us up from the status quo:

Don’t sideline working moms: Mother Coders is developing a program for moms who want to learn to code. The program addresses the timing and childcare issues a mom might encounter when entering a profession built around a 25-year-old male’s schedule. Weekend or all-night coding sessions are certainly out-of-the-question, so Mother Coders offers a weekend program with childcare options.

Recruit more women in VC: Only 11% of investment professionals at VC firms are women, while women founders receive only 4.2% of all VC money. As part of the JOBS Act, the SEC recently revised its guidelines for crowdfunding, meaning female founders can potentially bypass the male-dominated venture capital sector. Plum Alley, for example, offers a crowdfunding platform to fund companies founded by women.

Leah Belsky, VP at Kaltura Inc. and Engine board member adds: “The opening of the crowdfunding space, and the explosion of angel networks present a tremendous opportunity for women to enter the investment space. It means that women can immediately start directing money at a more diverse company base without having to wait until the glass ceilings in the more traditional VC world are broken. Programs like the Pipeline Fellowship and 37 Angels are training women investors and helping to catalyze this transition.”

Teach girls to be scientists: In the UK, Belinda Parmar founded Little Miss Geek to change girls’ perceptions of their aptitudes and potential career paths in STEM fields. Parmar advocates for single-sex schools, arguing that separating girls from boys in the formative stages of education removes gender-specific assumptions around subjects like computer science that are still deemed by some to be the domain of boys. Recent New York Mayoral candidate Christine Quinn also proposed all-girls schools to resolve the STEM gap.

While controversial and perhaps not a long-term fix, all-girls education could provide an important advantage to girls who might not otherwise see themselves as future engineers and coders. However, improving STEM education options for young women does not always mean that computer science is part of the curriculum. Code.org is encouraging advocacy for better computer science curriculum in schools since more than half of the projected STEM jobs involve computer science and coding.

These aren’t quick solutions that will right the gender imbalances in tech overnight, but they are steps toward rewriting the social code that must change so that the US can surge

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forward in terms of gender equality. The tech industry exports more than ios7 and Candy Crush saga; the example we set in terms of culture and inclusiveness can have a positive impact on women’s rights worldwide.