AnitaB.org Insights

New GAO Report Spotlights Government Role in Solving the Tech Industry’s Diversity Problem

by Brenda Darden Wilkerson, President and CEO of AnitaB.org

In 1995, tech visionary Anita Borg stood on stage at the Women in Science and Engineering Conference and issued a challenge. She asked the audience to set its sights on a technical workforce made up of 50 percent women by the year 2020. When Anita made that speech, 37% of computer scientists in the U.S. were female, and 2020 was still 25 years off into the future. It seemed like an ambitious goal, but still an achievable one. But today, we’re looking at a very different workforce — one that is struggling to recover from a steep drop in gender diversity over the past 20 years.

A report released Thursday by the General Accounting Office (GAO) shows women have made up a steady 22% of the country’s technical workforce between 2005 and 2015. That correlates with what we saw in the data from the 2017 Top Companies for Women Technologists program — in the U.S., we’re hovering right around 23% women in technical roles.

Suffice it to say, we’re not going to make it to 50/50 by 2020 — or any time in the foreseeable future — without some sort of drastic intervention.

In the past few years, the numbers around women’s representation have been improving, albeit very slowly. Companies are making incremental progress, but it’s not happening fast enough. In fact, our data shows we’re a full 30 years away from gender parity in technical roles if we continue at the current growth rate.

And for women of color in tech roles, the numbers are even more disheartening. We’ve made small measures of progress, but only certain classes of women have enjoyed the benefits. To put it more plainly, the increases in women’s representation have gone almost entirely to white women and, to a lesser degree, to women of Asian descent.

According to the new GAO report, black technology workers not only remain underrepresented in tech, but they have not made any gains since 2005. Native American representation in technology is so low that few studies even measure it; the GAO report is no exception.

Critics of the study might think: “Okay, not a big deal. Tech is only one sector of the world economy. Women and historically underrepresented groups have other opportunities to advance.”

But let’s be real: We’re rapidly moving toward an employment base where every company is a technology company. We’re not just talking about companies in Silicon Valley, or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or the Dulles Technology Corridor.

Companies that we’ve never traditionally thought of as “tech” companies are hiring thousands of technologists. Last month at the Grace Hopper Celebration, two of the four Top Companies for Women Technologists winners were a major insurance provider and a global consulting firm.

The Top Companies Leadership Index — made up of organizations whose representation of women technologists ranks above the mean — includes the usual software and cloud-services companies. But this list of leading organizations also includes well-known names from the national media and retail brands, as well as the worlds of finance and management consulting.

That’s exactly why this GAO report is so important, and why it shines an important light on the inequities not just in the technology sector, but within the ecosystem of federal contracts. In 2016, the top 10 federal contractors alone shared more than $140 billion in obligated contracts. And, all across federal departments — from Commerce and Labor to Defense and Education — thousands of contractors are paid directly through our taxpayer dollars.

Though the federal government can hardly compete with tech startups for agility, when our leaders define best practices, those changes affect workers at state, regional, and local levels. That is the degree of intervention our country requires to create significant opportunities for women and other underrepresented minority workers — not exclusively within the tech industry, but in the wider economy as it grows ever more dependent on technology to drive innovation and expansion.

Two decades ago, Anita Borg said: “We’re at a unique point in history where the things that we are building are going to significantly impact our social, political, economical, and personal lives.” It’s no less true today that it was back then. The data in this GAO report make a clear case for solving workforce inequities that affect the economic lives of millions of Americans, and threaten to undermine our position as the world’s technology leader.