To Get More Women In Tech, Start At Home And School

Tell Me More celebrates Women's History Month with the series "Women in Tech." Diverse voices will share ideas on bridging the gender gap in tech fields. The series begins with two startup founders.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. March is women's history month and we decided to observe it with a special series - Women in Tech. This month, we'll speak with women trailblazers about the advancements they're making in the tech world. They'll also share how they're mentoring young women and girls in computer science, and trying to get more girls interested in tech early on.

We hope you will listen throughout the month. On Twitter, women from around the world will live tweet their days using the hashtag #NPRWIT. You will be able to follow an inventor from IBM, a tech executive from American Express and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley to South Africa. Today, we launch the series with Christine Celise Johnson, founder of DiversiTech. That group is devoted to increasing minority representation in tech and providing young entrepreneurs with the resources they need. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

CHRISTINE CELISE JOHNSON: Hello. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Ana Roca Castro is founder of LATISM, which brings together Latinos in tech, innovation and social media. She's also founder and CEO of Plaza Familia, a bilingual education platform for Latino youth. Ana Roca Castro, welcome back to you. Thank you for joining us once again.

ANA ROCA CASTRO: Thank you for inviting me again.

MARTIN: But to get us started, I just have to share a few statistics about women in tech - kind of discouraging. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of women interested in majoring in computer science dropped by 79 percent. That according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

And the U.S. Census Bureau says women's representation in computer occupations has actually declined since the 1990's. In 2011, 26 percent of STEM workers were women and 74 percent were men. So, Ana Roca Castro, let me start with you. It's one thing to start with a workplace where women were explicitly excluded, but then to have a decline - why would that be?

ROCA CASTRO: You know, there are many reasons, and I think it starts at the root. Usually when schools engage in tech programs, they usually target the boys. And even if they don't target the boys, the games look for boys, the experiments are exclusively for boys, the toys look like boys. So it's right from the beginning.

And then college gets there and - same thing. You know, you're in a room - college is already intimidating for a girl, but then you're in a room full of boys. And they usually are called names, they're usually excluded even by fellow girlfriends, they're excluded. But boys can be very cruel at that age. And then at the workplace, you know, it's - I've been a developer in a typical company, and I would say 90 percent of the jokes were about me. And usually I would just like, call out - hey, estrogen's in the house, you know. So...

MARTIN: But that gets old, I guess what you're saying is that gets old after a while.

ROCA CASTRO: Totally.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah, Christine, what about you? Why would there be a decline?

CELISE JOHNSON: I think that there just needs to be a huge cultural shift. When you look at the job market in general, I think there are a multitude of avenues that people can take in general. Maybe STEM isn't perceived as sexy enough these days, especially for women, but our girls - when we look at it, there needs to be a true cultural shift at this point because, you know, this is a critical time as far as workforce development, different areas of opportunity as far as tech entrepreneurship and otherwise.

So I just wonder if the field is, as far as work opportunities, is pretty broad. And we need to kind of, you know, make a special effort to bring the girls back, and show them the vast opportunities in the STEM field.

MARTIN: You know, we had Facebook chat a couple of weeks ago for this series, preparing for this series. One participant, Demetrius Hicks (ph) of Washington, D.C. wrote in about young women in his high school who said they weren't interested in tech. He wrote, quote, often, they said it was just too much work, although these same females - now these are - I'm quoting him - were doing much better than their male counterparts including myself. Therefore, I question what's the reason behind this lack of confidence when they're more than capable? Just a brief final thought. I don't know, maybe, Christine, do you want to speak that?

CELISE JOHNSON: Sure. You know, that makes me think about my own personal experience. In my home, I was the writer, I was the creative. My brother was the techie. So it really wasn't encouraged as far as me pushing forward, even though I was pretty good in different subject areas as far as STEM.

Once I hit that barrier, hit challenges, my parents didn't really push for me to, you know, move beyond that point because my brother was considered the techie. It was the male-female thing. So I think really when I hear these examples, it really goes back, also, to the home, having a cultural shift in the home so that you're not pushing your daughter towards one area and your son towards another. There really needs to be an acknowledgment of where the talents in general as far as your young people, regardless of what their gender is.

MARTIN: You know...

CELISE JOHNSON: And being very conscious of incorporating, you know, different areas for your girls and your boys.

MARTIN: Speaking of culture, though, on the flipside, we just saw a story from TechCrunch about UC Berkeley's introductory computer science course. For the first time in its history, it has more women than men enrolled, just slightly more - 106 women versus 104 men. But - and they said that this might be because they changed the curriculum to be more team-oriented according to Professor Dan Garcia, who taught the course last spring.

I just want - Ana Roca Castro, want to hear your feedback on that. You think that might make a difference, if the way these courses are taught - the way they are described could be made more appealing? It's not so much the substance, it's the way it's pitched. What do you think?

ROCA CASTRO: Well, I think more than the actual course because at the end of the day, the curriculum, it's always going to be the curriculum. It's the recruitment. I think universities have to have a stronger recruitment effort when it comes to recruiting women, recruiting girls. They have to have more presence of women engineers in the high schools, in those career fairs and so on. You know, and speaking of culture, I think when it comes to the Latinas and the African-Americans, that's drastic when it comes to technology.

So, you know, I don't think it's so much the way you put it, but more going and tell them, look, you are fit for this. You are smart. You - the whole traditional perception of smart and being intelligent is something that's not necessarily communicated to us. It doesn't identify with many of us. So to go there and hear it from a fellow engineer or, you know, other women to just come to our colleges and our schools.

MARTIN: Let me just ask about people who are further along, past the college age. I want to loop back to something, Ana Roca Castro, you were telling us a few minutes ago. And if you're just joining us, we're kicking off our month-long series Women in Tech. Our guests are Ana Roca Castro of LATISM, Latinos in Social Media, and Christine Celise Johnson of DiversiTech.

We came across this other number, which is also discouraging. For women who do go into STEM, it appears that there are some things that are also pushing them out. It says we found that after 12 years, 50 percent of women who originally worked in STEM have exited and are employed in other fields. That according to the social research journal "Social Forces, which is published by Oxford University Press. Thoughts about this? Christine, do you want to start? Christine Celise Johnson, why would that be?

CELISE JOHNSON: I think that you have to look at the - again, it's - we keep bringing up culture, but it's so relevant in many respects when we talk about diversity in tech inclusion. You know, it's the space safe. Ana brought up her examples of, you know, having jokes being directed towards her. We really must, as we move forward to create these programs to include more women, more people of color, we have to look at it from the holistic perspective.

Is that corporate culture even prepared or sensitive to the needs of those new groups in this space? Are there policies set in place to make those individuals feel safe, protected and valued? There really needs to be a hard look at, not just recruitment, but what do you do when you're in this space? How are those folks retained and welcomed in the space and their needs met as well?

MARTIN: Ana Roca Castro, why does this matter? I mean, I'm sure that there are some people who will be listening to our conversation and will say, OK, well, maybe this was just a personal choice. These are lifestyle choices that people are making. They have every right to make. Why does this matter?

ROCA CASTRO: It matters a lot because when I was at the UN and I was managing over 700 engineers, I was making less money than the guys. And I - when it came to get the promotion, the guys got the promotion not me who actually did the work. And I had to travel to like, five continents on a monthly basis.

So there is a huge discrimination, and I'm talking about just a personal experience, but go look at statistics. You know, when it comes to promotion, when it comes to the pay rate, the women with the same level of education, same capacity and many times, higher dedication because we tend to be very devoted to our work, we get less money, we get less promotions. So that's super discouraging.

MARTIN: And finally, you know, in a matter of startups, and I wanted to mention, once again, throughout the course of the month, we'll be hearing all kinds of different experiences, hearing lots of different data about this issue. But I do have to ask, again, on the whole question of startups and investment - Sheree Mitchell (ph) of Washington, D.C. wrote during our Facebook Q and A, I don't think that women aren't founding startups. I just don't think they're getting the investment support that others are getting. Christine Celise Johnson, final thought from you for today, is this true and what would change that?

CELISE JOHNSON: I think it's very true. I think it's true for women and then if you go to another level, you look at minority groups. And what would change that definitely is that I think that it's helpful for us as women to change our strategy as far as how we approach the space, approach access to capital.

We need to find those that are supportive and our allies. Look into who the investors are or those in general that are leaders, and really identify those individuals and develop relationships with them because they will be, definitely, your advocates moving forward to get you in those spaces so that you can do the work necessary to win the dollars.

MARTIN: Christine Celise Johnson is founder of DiversiTech. She joined us from NPR member station WLRN in Miami. Ana Roca Castro is founder of Plaza Familia and LATISM, which connects Latinos in tech, innovation and social media. And she was kind enough to brave the snow to join us from our bureau in New York. Ladies, thanks so much for joining us to kick off our special series.

ROCA CASTRO: Thank you.

CELISE JOHNSON: Thank you.

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