Betty Holberton had an unforgettable first day at the University of Pennsylvania. Her math professor asked if she’d be better off at home raising children. That was the 1940s. Holberton proved her professor wrong, very wrong. She became a coding pioneer, one of six women who programmed ENIAC, the world’s first successful commercial computer.
Nearly 70 years after Holberton helped propel the world into the digital age, gender discrimination and stereotypes continue to prevent women from learning the necessary skills to get hired for many tech jobs. Women account for only five percent of leadership positions in the technology industry. New approaches to education are needed to change the status quo.
The Holberton School, named in honor of Betty Holberton, is one of several new efforts designed to close the digital divide between genders. Co-founder Sylvain Kalache said Holberton’s story resonated with him and fellow founder Julien Barbier so much they named the school in her honor.
“A lot of what we have now is thanks to her,” says Kalache about Holberton’s contribution to technology. “She was discriminated against, but she won ultimately. Betty was not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
Women account for only five percent of leadership positions in the technology industry. New approaches to education are needed to change the status quo.
Digital transformation is radically changing the workplace. Jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago are creating new opportunities. Yet women, half the global population, remain underrepresented in STEM fields and aren’t benefiting from these advances nearly as much as men.
The Holberton School partners with high-profile investors to increase diversity, including actor Priyanka Chopra and singer-songwriter NE-YO. The school charges no upfront tuition (students begin paying back tuition once they get a job making at least $40,000 per year) and does not require coding experience or a college degree for acceptance.
Kalache says its application process is completely blind and automated “to make sure there’s no discrimination and human bias.” The result is a notably high annual rate of female enrollment — some years as much as 40 percent.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, created a free virtual skills school called WeLearn, which focuses on teaching 21st-century skills, entrepreneurship, and jobs of the future.
Likewise, programs like Verizon Innovative Learning, Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, TechGirlz, Move the Dial and others aim to close the gender skills gap with courses, access, and efforts to change laws.
Despite these and other initiatives, gender parity remains elusive. According to a 2017 World Economic Forum report, the global overall gender gap will take 100 years to close at the current rate of change.
UN Women recommends a multipronged approach that includes teaching tech courses to non-tech majors, vocational training options such as its WeLearn program and guiding workers from non-tech fields into the tech industry.
Programs like Verizon Innovative Learning, Women Who Code, Girls Who Code, TechGirlz and Move the Dial aim to close the gender skills gap.
In July, the nonprofit Girls Who Code issued a policy agenda that offered legislators four recommendations for closing the tech gender gap: Track and report data on computer science participation, expand computer science courses to all middle schools, increase exposure to women and other underrepresented minorities in tech, and fund gender-inclusion training within professional development.
TechGirlz aims to reduce the gender gap by focusing on girls at the middle school age. The non-profit creates short, interactive workshops taught by people with solid tech knowledge.
“I want to reach a point where I want to put TechGirlz out of business,” says the organization’s co-founder Tracey Welson-Rossman. “When we do that, we know we’ve been successful in changing how people feel about women in tech, about being smart, and how girls feel about themselves and their worth in the innovation economy.”
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