Commentary

The Next Generation of Tech

In 2014, Apple released Apple Health, an extremely innovative product that changed the connection between health and technology. The framework allows users to track almost everything: from your steps to your cholesterol levels to your blood-alcohol content. Yet, for a full year, the company failed to acknowledge perhaps the most basic form of health tracking – menstruation.

Mistakes like this one highlight the gender gap in the tech industry. How could such an important element of women’s health be forgotten? According to Apple’s global gender data, women make up 31 percent of the company’s workforce, with only 22 percent filling technical roles and 28 percent filling leadership positions. For rival companies like Facebook and Twitter, these numbers are even lower.

The underrepresentation of females in the tech industry is damaging not only for a girl potentially interested in a career in the field, but also for the industry as a whole. These male-dominated companies have biased, one-sided perspectives which are reflected in products these companies create, like Apple Health. To address the broad spectrum of issues facing our society, the industry must reduce this gender gap.

The answer seems to be clear: We need to hire more women. But in reality, it’s not that simple. Computer science is an historically male-dominated profession.

Currently, the field has very few female role models for aspiring engineers to look up to. This cycle has left Silicon Valley scrambling for a solution, especially as their disheartening diversity numbers have been made public. In an attempt to counter backlash from feminist groups, tech companies have only just begun to recruit young women.

Some of these efforts have been incredibly successful. Over the summer, I attended Girls Who Code, a program for high-school girls with a goal of inspiring and providing them with computing skills. I learned the basics of Python, Javascript, and HTML at Google’s San Francisco offices, completely free of charge. Girls Who Code and similar programs are widely supported and funded by tech companies; they are hoping to instill an interest in computer science at an early age.

In addition, many programs have begun to target even younger female audiences, seeking to teach computer science to middle-school girls; however, the recruitment methods used for these campaigns only further limit girls in tech. They attempt to appeal to girls by drenching their ads with sparkles and glitter. They introduce projects that teach girls how to program light-up lipstick and nail polish, sugar-coating what being an engineer might actually be like. These methods belittle female intellect and ability by assuming that the only way to connect with girls is to drench campaigns in pink.

While these companies are trying to appeal to women, their ads reduce femininity into something that is materialistic, trivial and, frankly, one-dimensional. In attempting to appear relatable and approachable with these sparkly ads, the tech industry is actually demeaning girls. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with pink or with glitter, if that is a part of your femininity. But by assuming that the only way to engage girls in the tech industry is to make everything about makeup and sparkles, campaigns are only perpetuating the same societal misconceptions that have kept women out of the field in the first place.

That said, the Andover community does not necessarily reflect this trend of misguided attempts to bring women into computer science. I am proud to say that we are actually at the forefront of the movement to make the tech industry a place for women. Maria Litvin, who leads the computer science division of the Math Department, is not only a role model for girls potentially interested in taking a course in Computer Science, but is also an advocate for girls’ involvement in the computer science community at large. Last year, she brought the Technovation Challenge, an international tech and entrepreneurship competition for girls, to Andover. Nearly thirty of Andover’s girls participated.

There is still so much more to be done to improve the representation of girls in Andover’s Computer Science program. Nearly all of my classes have nearly equal numbers of boys and girls, but my computer science class’s gender imbalance is painfully obvious. I am one of only two girls in a class of eight. The department as a whole has a more balanced number of girls and boys, but the number of boys taking computer science classes, especially in advanced level courses, is still higher than that of girls.

While Andover students are thousands of miles away from the heart of the tech industry, the future of the field starts right now with us. By beginning to spread awareness and encouraging our female friends to consider computer science, we can spark conversations about the underrepresentation of women in the tech industry and challenge the ways in which the field represents and recruits women. I encourage everyone in the Andover community to talk about it, to question why and how women have continued to be so underrepresented in one of the fastest growing industries in the world. It is only by challenging stereotypes, not perpetuating them, that Andover and the tech industry may make themselves communities in which women can participate in and contribute to computer science. We owe it to each other, and ourselves, that no Apple program ever forgets that women use technology, too.

Jan 22, 2016