Last week, I was invited to spend an evening with Girls Who Code, a not-for-profit organization that works to inspire women to pursue IT/computing-related studies and careers. My decision to attend this event was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Women’s dwindling interest to take jobs in technology has been a headline for quite some time, but I didn’t fully realize how bad the situation had become until I did some research myself. I browsed the Girls Who Code website with the intention of learning more about this organization. This sparked my interest to dig deeper—the findings and learnings that came out of this research brought quite a few insights to light for me, specifically around gender diversity in the technology space.
According to the 2017 World Census, the world population is split almost equally: 50.3% men and 49.7% women. But when you look at the workforce age group (21-65), it is almost exactly 50-50. According to Business Insider, the technology industry is expected to grow at 4-5% in the coming years. Meanwhile, the tech job market is expected to grow at roughly 20%, due to high demand in specific sectors like web development, security, data science and software engineering. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields, and while U.S. graduates are on track to fill 29% of those jobs, women will fill just 3%. A study from Girls Who Code shows that women’s interest in programming drops significantly as they age: 66% for women between the ages of six to twelve but only 4% by the time they enter college.
So, one might ask the question, what is the big deal? Imagine a world where half of the population is not actively participating in shaping the future! Just the thought of wasted talent and untapped potential gave me chills.
My feelings were validated by the experience I had that evening at Girls Who Code, which took place a few days after the WannaCry outburst. I spent some time explaining how this ransomware affected access to medical information and patient records, ultimately impacting the treatment of the ill. One of the girls stopped me and said, “So you save people’s lives?” I have never internalized my job with that line of sight; her comment made me speechless for a moment.
The girls in attendance went on to discuss the topic of ethical coding, and how they once thought hacking Google was cool but that it didn’t seem so cool anymore. The next day, I got a message from one of the girls saying that she wanted to be a network specialist, in order to stop cybercriminals from affecting the lives of “good” people. I was totally blown away by the sheer intelligence, creativity and curiosity of these young women.
At Forcepoint, we believe the way to solve security is through protecting the human point, to stop bad cyber behaviors and free good ones. These thirteen year-old girls proved to me that our mission resonates, no matter what age or gender you are.
As a kid, I always liked to debate. I enjoyed looking at facts from both sides in order to make an argument for or against something. My experience in debating prompted me to ask a few questions. Are men and women wired differently? What makes technology more attractive to one gender than the other? Are we artificially pushing the case that we need greater participation from women in technology?
It is clear from many neuroscience researchers that men and women are wired differently. However, there are two specfic vectors that accentuate this point even further:
1. Advantage of Abstraction: Generally, the male brain is wired to thrive on sensory data, while the female brain thrives on abstract thinking. This can be explained through a simple example: ask a man for directions and his answer will usually include a cardinal direction like north, south, east or west, along with highway numbers; ask a woman for directions and her answer will generally include a combination of landmarks such as restaurants and businesses, along with action-oriented guidance, such as “turn right” or “make a U-turn.”
One of the fastest growing areas of technology is Artificial Intelligence, which focuses on teaching machines abstract thinking. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to leverage the power of abstract thinking from a female brain? Abstract thinking is also important to strategic thinking, a much-needed skill in leadership and executive roles, as well as in the boardroom.
2. Power of Neurons: The brain is a fascinating organ. According to research by PBS Kids, girls have at least 20% more neurons in the language-section of the brain (Broca and Wernicke area) than do boys. However, experience plays a key role in how the brain is wired; for example, one can increase the neural path by consciously exposing the brain to alternative skills. With that being said, females naturally outperform their male counterparts in abstract thinking and language skills. By exposing girls to a variety of activities that require data processing and logical thinking (and abstract thinking for boys), we can better prepare future generations to thrive in multiple vectors.
To tie this all together, I would like to use a quote from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “If we closed the gap in workforce participation between women and men around the world, GDP would grow by nearly 12 percent by 2030.” As humans, we all want a prosperous and peaceful world. This means we must begin embracing the differences between genders and empowering our young people to be as successful as they can possibly be. This won’t be easy, but it is quite possible and achievable. I am motivated—are you?