Break this Catch-22 and Close the Tech Gender Gap
By Judy Spitz, WiTNY Program Director, and Julie Samuels, Executive Director of Tech:NYC
This op-ed originally appeared in Crain’s: New York Business
As a nation, we are getting this wrong. To make matters worse, women earn just 19% of college degrees in computer science and information technology, even though the percent of all degrees being awarded to women is at a record high of 58%.
We owe it to ourselves to change these troubling trends, not just for the sake of parity (which is exceedingly important), but because it makes economic sense.
Why can’t they get access to these coveted summer tech internships? Employers report that they don’t have any experience on their resumes—something more privileged freshmen and sophomores typically get from unpaid apprenticeships and weekend hackathons or by having a network of connections that get their foot in the door. CUNY women can’t afford the time for these unpaid experiences because they are working one or more part-time jobs to help their families and to pay for college, and they don’t know anyone on the inside to help them. It’s a classic Catch-22. The result? Less than 10% of CUNY women who apply for summer tech internships in their junior and senior years actually land one.
Solving this problem won’t happen overnight, but some efforts have made progress. One is to place students into host companies for a paid internship that is brief so it is low-cost and low-risk for the companies—yet transformational for both the students in terms of the credential and the companies for exposure to the next generation of diverse tech talent.
One model for addressing this challenge is the WiTNY initiative, a partnership between New York City, Cornell Tech and CUNY (and funded by industry partners). It brings together the diversity of CUNY, the resources of Cornell Tech and buy-in from the city and forward-thinking companies with a commitment to generating a strong women-in-tech pipeline.
Its Winternship program—a paid internship of two or three weeks in January for freshman and sophomore women in tech—makes it easy for a company to open its doors to these young women in order to get that incredibly valuable first tech experience. Winternships can change the trajectory of these young women’s lives while also energizing the host company’s internal operations. Last year 46 companies gave opportunities to 177 freshmen and sophomores. In the end, 54% of these CUNY women landed 10-week paid summer tech internships in the city, compared with less than 10% without the program. The Winternship opened a pathway into tech that appealed to the host companies, energized their employees and changed the lives of the students.
Making New York City the destination for women in tech will require many changes to our schools, companies and culture. From the top down, we have to create an environment that gives young women a way in to the industry and the confidence to master it. The Winternship program isn’t a total solution. But it’s an excellent start.