An audience had gathered at the Wisdom Stage inside Hoboken's Propeller Festival earlier this month to hear Solomon Steplight, chief operations officer of Girls Who Code, speak on gender diversity in technology.
And even though the nonprofit’s representative for the event was male, he began by detailing his own history of fighting the odds.
“I grew up in East Orange. I live in Newark. Simply stated: I’m not supposed to be here,” he said. “I’m one of those statistical people that you hear about when they talk about the problems in education and in technology.”
Those roadblocks, Steplight said, become even more dire when observed through the lens of intersectionality, which is the correlative structure of social categorizations such as race, class and gender, and how they apply to a given individual or group and overlap into a web of systems of discrimination or disadvantage.
“Women make up only 26 percent of the tech force in America, minorities less than 10 percent,” he said. “When I started at Girls Who Code two years ago, only 6,000 girls in the United States took the AP computer science test.
“How many boys? 30,000.”
Seeing a need to address this issue, Steplight took his job at Girls Who Code.
He said the group’s mission is simple.
“We’re positioned to close the gender gap in tech,” he said.
And the group has seen progress. Four years ago, in its inaugural year, Girl Who Code was operating in a single classroom with 20 female students. By the end of 2016, the group will have taught 40,000 girls, according to Steplight.
Steplight then asked, hypothetically, “What does 40,000 girls mean to the United States?”
Across the field, on the event’s other stage, Judith Spitz had the answer.
Asserting that most people already knew these statistics, Spitz pointed out that gender diversity means a better return on investment.
“So, if you care about revenue and profitability, you want a more gender diverse team,” she said.
Ultimately, though, Spitz said something even greater is needed.
“We need more women in leadership,” she said.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Where are all the women in leadership in technology?’” Spitz said. “I can tell you, from a 29-year career in a tech company, that staring down into that pipeline and looking down for the next generation of women coming up behind me is not a pretty picture.”
An education gap
Judith Spitz, chief innovation officer at Verizon, knows there need to be more women in tech. And it’s not just because more diverse teams provide a better return on investment.
The actual problem, she said, is a lot more basic than that.
“There are 500,000 open tech jobs today, and that number is expected to double in the next five years,” she said. “It’s pure math: It’s very difficult to see how we can meet the technology workforce needs if we’re literally leaving more than half of the available talent pool sitting on the bench.”
But there’s a pipeline problem.
According to Girls Who Code Chief Operations Officer Solomon Steplight, schools face an uphill battle in preparing students for jobs in technological fields.
And that’s a problem, because the industry desperately needs skilled workers.
“When you do the work that I do, you work with principals and talk to parents across the country about the challenges they have around education,” he said. “Then you say there’s a potential for 1.4 million jobs for people who have computer science skills by the time their daughter graduates college.
“They look at me and say, ‘There is no outlet for them. There are no resources.’”
And, citing futurist Ray Kurzweil, Spitz said that gap in leadership held unsettling implications as technology becomes a larger part of everyday life.
“(Kurzweil) made the observation that technology is the evolution of human biology, and we are hurdling toward the time when our biology will be equal part technology and physiology,” she said. “So, think about the implications to the human race if the technology that is destined to be the essence of who we are as a species is developed largely under the leadership and guidance of a single gender.
“So, we have to ask ourselves about our obligation and what we’re doing about it.”
Having asked that question himself, Steplight said his answer is what drives him. That answer, he said, was found in a conversation with the founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Seujani.
“I was asked to give some advice to a woman named Reshma Seujani (on) how to scale a nonprofit organization,” he said. “In speaking to her, I was completely moved, (and) the reason I was moved is because I’m an engineer, but I’m also a father. I have a young daughter.
“I tried to imagine, after talking to Reshma, (my daughter) growing up with a geeky, techie father like me, developing an interest in computer science and then confronting the reality that only 26 percent of women are in tech jobs.”
His mission, and that of Girls Who Code, is to build that pipeline Spitz said is almost nonexistent right now.
“I wanted, at the very least, to create thousands of potential mentors for my daughter,” he said.