Male and Female Founders Differ Greatly in Undergraduate Majors, TV Series Draws Attention to Proportion of CS Women in 1980s, #ILookLikeAnEngineer Aims to Spread Awareness About Diversity in Tech, Using “Fairness Through Awareness” to Reduce Bias

Male and Female Founders Differ Greatly in Terms of Undergraduate Majors

As a follow-up to its earlier report on female founders, which found that the percentage of female founders among VC-funded companies nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014, CrunchBase recently published the results of its investigation into the educational backgrounds of women founders to determine which universities and majors or graduate programs are most strongly represented among the group. The data sample consisted of the 3,616 female founders in CrunchBase whose companies have received funding since 2009.

The study found a stark difference between male and female founders in terms of undergraduate majors. The top degrees for female founders in undergraduate studies were Social Science (30 percent), Business (18 percent), Arts and Humanities (17 percent), Computer Science (10 percent), and Engineering (8 percent). When CrunchBase sliced the data by STEM subjects versus other majors, it found that 31 percent of female founders had undergraduate degrees in the STEM core.

For men, however, Computer Science (33 percent) and Engineering (20 percent) were the top undergraduate degrees, meaning that male founders were three times more likely to have a computer science degree and slightly more than twice as likely to have an engineering degree. From a STEM perspective, fully 63 percent of male founders had a STEM degree, more than twice the percentage for women.

It seems reasonable to suggest that CS, engineering, and STEM degrees are one strong precursor to tech entrepreneurship, based on what the data shows for male founders. On the other hand, the fact that female founders are four times more likely than males to have an arts and humanities degree and more than twice as likely to have a social science degree may suggest that female founders find entrepreneurial inspiration in ways male founders are less likely to. As the number of female founders increases over time, it will be interesting to watch how the comparative educational backgrounds of male and female founders change.

NCWIT’s own research into this topic includes Which gender differences matter for high-tech entrepreneurship? (Published in Open Source Business Resource, July 2011) and Summary of Recent Research on Gender and High-tech Start-ups.

A TV Series Draws Attention to the Proportion of CS Women in the 1980s

Ever watch the AMC television series “Halt and Catch Fire,” which chronicles two young women running an upstart computer company in the 1980s? A recent CNN article used the series to highlight the differences between women in computing during that time versus today. Many people are surprised to find out that in the early 1980s, women made up a much larger proportion of the computing workforce than they do today.

Compared to 1985, more bachelor’s degrees in computing were completed in 2012, BUT the gap between the number of males and females receiving computing degrees continues to widen. This has occurred despite the number of computer science jobs increasing.

The CNN article explained the decrease of women in the field in terms of perceptions of computing: that coding is boring, that mass marketing and encouragement of computer usage by men has been going on since the mid-1980s, and that men and women think of the value of computers differently. For example, a University of British Columbia study suggests that men tend to see computers as a "toy," and women tend to see them as a "tool." The article also discusses the common male-centric laboratory climate in which women might be seen as foreign or even receive open hostility. However, the issue is more complex than what is presented. Additional explanations are that computing work is considered a male occupation, there are many stereotypes that downplay women's competence in computing, and educational policies limit the offering and importance of computer science classes in schools.

On the positive side, there are many efforts underway to get the number of women in computer science trending upward again, including programs that allow female high school students to shadow women in college computer science programs, as well as colleges making a concerted effort to get middle school and high school girls interested in math and science. Even the toy industry is marketing computer science and engineering playthings to girls. These efforts give hope that a show such as "Halt and Catch Fire," retro as it may be, could resemble the future for women in computer science.

NCWIT’s website offers many resources to help engage young girls in computing, including the following:

#ILookLikeAnEngineer Aims to Spread Awareness About Diversity in Tech

When OneLogin Platform Engineer Isis Wenger agreed to participate in the company’s recruiting campaign, she had no idea of the backlash that would come from it. As discussed in a recent TechCrunch article, the recruiting campaign featured several of OneLogin’s engineers along with statements about why they like working at the company. The ads, including the one featuring Wenger, were placed in prominent locations in San Francisco. What got people talking about the campaign wasn’t the picture of the security engineer wearing a black hat and hackers shirt, but rather the photo of Wenger, and not in a positive way.

In response to the backlash, Wenger started the social media hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer to change the way people think about engineers. The hashtag went viral and may even be getting its own billboard, as mentioned in an article on TakePart.com. This effort, spawned by San Francisco-based web developer Michelle Glauser, would turn the online collection of Twitter photos into a life-size billboard representing the diversity of the profession. Glauser hopes its potential to be seen on Highway 101, which passes through Silicon Valley, could help spark offline conversations about gender bias within STEM fields.

Earlier this month, Glauser began an IndiGoGo campaign that within a few days had gained more than 400 percent of its initial $3,500 goal! Now, she’s seeking corporate sponsorships that will allow companies to pay to have their logo featured on the billboard alongside the engineers. She wants the billboard to expand the notion of what engineers look like and who can be one — which is everyone.

NCWIT’s offers a resource to address sexism titled How Does Combating Overt Sexism Affect Women's Retention? Assessments for Identifying Overt Sexism (Case Study 1).

Using “Fairness Through Awareness” to Reduce Bias in Algorithms

A recent New York Times Upshot article featured an interview with Microsoft Research computer scientist Cynthia Dwork on the subject of algorithms and bias. The interview focuses on "growing evidence that algorithms and other types of software can discriminate” since such software often incorporates and reflects the biases we hold. For example, research shows "that ad-targeting algorithms have shown ads for high-paying jobs to men but not women, and ads for high-interest loans to people in low-income neighborhoods.” Dwork discusses some of the processes that lead to these biases, ways to address these, and important tradeoffs between fairness and privacy, as illuminated in the paper she co-wrote titled “Fairness Through Awareness.”

“‘Fairness Through Awareness’ makes the observation that sometimes, in order to be fair, it is important to make use of sensitive information while carrying out the classification task,” noted Dwork. “This may be a little counterintuitive: The instinct might be to hide information that could be the basis of discrimination.”

She provides an example of a minority group in which bright students are steered toward studying math, and a majority group in which bright students are steered instead toward finance. An easy way to find good students is to look for students studying finance, and if the minority is small, this simple classification scheme could find most of the bright students. However, this approach would not be fair to the bright students in the minority group, and it’s also not very useful. Instead, for the purposes of finding bright students, cultural awareness indicates that “minority+math” is similar to “majority+finance.” A classification algorithm that has this sort of cultural awareness is both more fair and more useful.

She continued, “Fairness means that similar people are treated similarly. A true understanding of who should be considered similar for a particular classification task requires knowledge of sensitive attributes, and removing those attributes from consideration can introduce unfairness and harm utility.”

The interview concluded with her thoughts that ideally a regulatory body or civil rights organization would impose rules governing these issues, and that computer science education should include lessons on how to be aware of them as well as the various approaches for how to address them.

NCWIT has several resources that can help organizations recognize and reduce unconscious bias in the workplace, including Supervising-in-a-Box Series: Performance Review/Talent Management and Recruiting, Retaining, and Advancing a Diverse Technical Workforce: Data Collection and Strategic Planning Guidelines.