Gender, race, and migration in the Information Technology workforce

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Derek Khanna describes women’s decreasing share of computing jobs and makes the case that this is a problem for both women and tech companies. Khanna puts his hope for recruiting women into computing in programs like the National Center for Women in Information Technology’s Aspirations in Computing, which encourages high school girls interested in computing by connecting them to mentors and a supportive community. He also sees promise in the cool factor of flashy videos featuring high-profile spokesmen like will.i.am and self-fashioned, pro-feminist role models like Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.

These programs and role models do impressive work, but they aren’t enough nor do they address the inequalities among women. I’ve seen the incredible excitement of young women who receive awards for their aspirations in computing and heard women programmers declare “I never thought of myself as a feminist but after hearing Sheryl Sandberg speak I think I am,” as they resolve to seek better treatment from their employer. Like Derek Khanna, I find it hard to be anything other than excited about the future of women in computing when I see these things. Then the speech ends, the video dims, the awards ceremony is over and I remember that gender is only one lens and these solutions are not attentive to class or race or larger issues of global migration that shape the computing workforce. Looking at computing workers through a gendered lens produces a graph that looks like this:

Figure 1: Percent of Men and Women with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree Working in IT Fields

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Women’s share of computing jobs rose quickly until the 1990s and began decreasingly slightly around 2000. I’m looking at workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, but if I looked at all workers or at college computer science majors I would see that decrease starting earlier. On the other hand, when I look at gender, race, and migration together I see a different story.

Figure 2: IT Workers with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree by Demographic Group, 1960-2009

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The decrease in the percentage of computing jobs held by women is a dip only for white American women, but this isn’t because fewer white American women are entering now than in 2000. The percent of jobs held by native born white men dropped too, while the percent of jobs held by foreign born men has roughly doubled in the last 20 years. The field grew rapidly, and this growth has been fueled substantially by migration. Thus, the increase in the percentage of immigrant men is primarily driving the decrease in the percentage of women. The percentages of American women of color and immigrant women have increased slightly but they are such a small part of the workforce that their increases aren’t enough to change the downward trend for women generally.

It’s important that women have access to these good jobs, but the problem is more complex than recruiting women as if all women have, for the same reasons, decided computing is not for them. Thus far, most of the strategies to recruit women tend to focus on girls in the US who at least have regular access to home computers. These girls likely have different obstacles and advantages than girls without regular computer access. Moreover, my analysis of computing workers’ wages suggests that women earn substantially less than men on average.  Women need to be treated with respect and rewards equal to their male counterparts’ when they do enter computing jobs, otherwise these programs and initiatives to recruit women will not result in the good jobs they promise.

By Sharla Alegria, graduate student in residence at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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