Dozens of women in tech — from entrepreneurs to start-up employees — have spoken up in recent months about their experiences with sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace, leaving many college-aged women studying computer science worried for what’s to come and thinking twice about pursuing careers in the industry.
Among the recent sexual harassment scandals in the industry:
- Justin Caldbeck, co-founder of Binary Capital, announced a leave of absence at the end of June after being accused by six women of sexual harassment.
- Chris Sacca, founder of Lowercase Capital, was accused of touching the face of an entrepreneur and investor at a tech gathering in Las Vegas. He issued a public apology.
- Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, stepped down in June after the New York Times revealed that he had been accused of sexually harassing women he worked with.
- Travis Kalanick, who left his position as Uber CEO in June, apologized for Uber’s culture in February after several scandals, reports of pervasive sexism, particularly software developer Susan J. Fowler’s allegations of sexual harassment and sexism at the company.
Women studying computer science say the culture of Silicon Valley has already started affecting them in college.
Emily Sim, a junior computer science major at Tufts University said she has experienced sexism and sexual harassment in tech settings that have made her moderate her personality and how she acts in the workplace, including in internships.
“It makes me scared for people like me — fresh out of college, going into the workplace and not feeling that they can be themselves for a lot of reasons, but also because it affects productivity,” Sim says. “I see myself not being able to contribute in meetings because of all of this, whether it’s being worried about sexism or being harassed in the workplace.”
Sim thinks this type of dynamic is bound to get worse after graduation. “It’s micro-aggressions from our classmates that we deal with now,” she says. “We know when we go into the workplace it will transcend to more than just that.”
Sarah Wooders, a computer science junior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she felt those micro-aggressions as a software engineering intern at Bloomberg, where she sensed women were being assigned less desirable projects than the men.
“I wrote down that I wanted to do things with algorithms, math and very heavy back-end, and my preferences were kind of ignored,” Wooders said. “There were only a few other women out of maybe 150 people, but I noticed that they all had very front-end, much less technical, much less interesting projects and seemed to be not as happy with their projects.”
When Wooders described her experience during her exit interview, she felt like her problem was dismissed. “The [interviewer] was like, ‘That’s impossible, we do so much for women,’ which I thought was a kind of ridiculous thing to say,” she tells USA TODAY College.
Problems like this can cause women to leave computer science before they even graduate, but according to Sydney Gibson, a junior and computer science major at MIT, women sometimes decide to leave the major before that because of knowledge gaps and discouragement.
“Less women than men come into MIT already familiar with how to code, general computer science knowledge, general math knowledge,” Gibson said. “There’s more catching up for them to do, and sometimes professors and other students aren’t receptive to that. I personally have learned to be aggressive in the classroom setting.”
Shreya Chandrasekar, a junior at the University of Texas-Austin studying computer science, said it’s tough to be a woman in a male-dominated space. According to research from Girls Who Code – a non-profit organization for girls interested in technology – women account for just 24% of all computing jobs.
And if things don’t change soon, the number of women in tech could decline 2% by 2025.
“The issue itself stems from society as a whole not having enough women in these fields,” Chandrasekar says. “It’s kind of a catch-22 in that women don’t want to go into computer science because they feel like its daunting with so many males, but then because there’s so few women, for that reason, it makes more of a bias against women. And I think that can be overcome by equalizing the amount of women and men in tech.”
More than 1 million job openings in computing industries will be available by 2024, according to research by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, and companies will need women in computer science to fill those spaces.
Related: Man, computer science needs more women
Some groups trying to create this space for women include Girls Who Code, Women in Technology, a non-profit focusing on engaging and empowering women, the Anita Borg Institute, which has offices around the world helping women to grow their careers, and Women in Computer Science, which has different groups across the country whose roles range from supporting women studying computer science to increasing participation of women in the tech field.
Through groups like these, women have learned ways of navigating the tech world.
“I’m personally trying to specialize in an area of computer science that makes me valuable and not easy to look over,” Gibson said. “I’m minoring in mathematics and have a pretty decent math background, which will often help me stand out and bat any sort of negative perceptions of me as a woman.”
Sim says, “Trust your gut.” When it comes to sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace, she says bravery as well as not questioning her instincts has taken her a long way.
And Chandrasekar looks ahead, saying she hopes more women entering the field can help change the culture and make tech a safer place for women.
“I’m not completely hindered by (sexual harassment),” she says. “I know that it’s there, but I’m not going to let it stop me from doing what I want in my career, and I can thank women … who came before me for that.”
Nashwa Bawab is a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a USA TODAY College correspondent.
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