The world deserves more women in tech

young female engineer

Not too long ago, I wanted to move to Lagos. I fell in love with one of Africa’s greatest metropolises but the city faced deep issues. For the more than 15 million residents, finding a toilet was almost impossible, exacerbating existing problems with a city with a barely functioning sewage system.

And yet, a team from one of the city’s many high schools found an elegant solution. They created an app that was the AirBnB of toilets: users could rent out their toilets to residents for a fee. Another example of youth and technology solving a seemingly unsolvable problem. Well, not really – these girls bucked a trend working against them and it wasn’t the dearth of toilet facilities for Lagosians.

I work in an industry that reveres coders. In venture capital, we search for technology that forms the bedrock upon which tech giants are built. We live off the stories of how they have architected the greatest innovations in the last 100 years. Cisco, Apple, Google, and the like are our archetypes of success. But there’s something deeply wrong with our industry and it comes down to a simple question:

Where are the women?

It was women, not men that gave birth to computer science and programmed much of the greatest innovations of the 20th century. Starting with a paper published in the 19th century by the mathematician, Ada Lovelace, women were the early pioneering software engineers, coding their way to victory in World War II as well as on the moon missions. Women invented the fundamental programming languages, from machine code to graphical user interfaces. And for a while, this was normal because men preferred working on hardware.

But the story changed sometime in the 1970s and the ranks of women programmers were culled. Men began to show interest in software and, as it became more lucrative, they pushed the women out. Women were never allowed to work in hardware and now software was closed off to them too. Computer science was one of the few STEM fields women could pursue a career and that was closed.

We are now a quarter of the way into the 21st century and yet the legacy tragically carries on. In Canada, women make up only one-fifth of engineering graduates, a metric that hasn’t changed in the last ten years. Only 25 percent of computer science graduates are women, another metric that has actually worsened from 10 years ago.

Fewer women programmers mean a more shallow pool of would-be tech entrepreneurs and programmers.

The impact is generational – I see it in Venture Capital (VC). Fewer women programmers mean a more shallow pool of would-be tech entrepreneurs and programmers. And those women who are there face tremendous barriers in male-dominated tech ecosystems.

Coding and community

There are many solutions but I believe one of the most impactful ways is to focus very early: encourage girls to pursue careers in computer science. It’s not the only solution but more women in programming will be critical because, sometimes in life, quantity has a quality all to its own. And I’m not the only one. Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are some of the programs trying to close the gap.

However, these aren’t enough. Over a decade of scaling social investment initiatives have taught me one thing: real change comes from a global scale which means you need lots of resources. One pioneer figured this out.

Technovation, led by Anar Simpson and with the full support of Mozilla’s senior leadership, brings thousands of girls together and teaches them, over the course of a few weeks, to build apps. The group of Nigerian girls I mentioned earlier were part of the Technovation cohort.

Technovation’s success is rare though based on a simple formula: develop a model that’s easily scalable; base it on a technology that’s widely available (e.g., mobile phones); and secure the backing of significant but strategically targeted resources.

And it makes perfect sense for Mozilla’s business model. Talent is the number one challenge for any tech company, especially recruiting software engineers. And Mozilla is thinking of the long game. It doesn’t just have the standard perks found in many large Valley tech campuses; it also can draw upon cohorts of women who were given a chance denied to previous generations. And they can find this cohort anywhere, even in the teeming streets of Lagos.

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