A few weeks ago, the New York Times called it "Technology’s Man Problem." Tech outlets across the web have named it "brogramming culture." And tons of organizations tirelessly work to combat it. It is the overwhelming scarcity of women in tech.
The general method to improve female-to-male ratios in tech companies is to attract women to the field early on, by encouraging them to take computer science classes in high school and college. Recently the toys and games industry has targeted the youngest girls, with products like Computer Engineer Barbie and GoldiBlox. And now, a tech executive wants to get the entertainment industry on board.
Anthony Onesto, director of talent development at Razorfish, is finishing up an Indiegogo campaign to get a new children's cartoon off the ground, called Ella the Engineer. The campaign aims to raise $25,000 by April 27th to produce the pilot, aiming for outlets like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.
Onesto noticed that his two daughters, aged 11 and six, were incredibly interested in tech. They played on the iPad and computer, but it stopped there. His son, however, enjoyed figuring out how all these devices worked.
"There was never any intrinsic interest into how things work. But my son, who is eight, he was sort of more interested in the engineering behind it. I just found it odd," says Onesto.
He has repeatedly seen the same trend in the tech world, where he recruits talent. "I started looking at some of the applications that were coming in. ‘Is this an anomaly? Are there deeper roots? Why aren’t there female engineers in this space?’" Onesto asked himself.
Thinking of his daughters, he realized that girls are poorly exposed to the possibilities of a tech career from a young age. "There is no hero, no heroine in their lives, particularly in the media and the shows that they are watching, that has this computer science background," he says.
Onesto decided to start a side project in his non-working hours, with his daughters as inspiration. Not only did Onesto study what they were watching but the main character Ella is also named after his youngest daughter.
With the help of an animator friend, Onesto put together some sketches for the show’s concept. Onesto hopes the tech-savvy heroine Ella will change perceptions of coding for all kids at a young age.
But if the campaign does not reach that goal, Onesto will donate all the funds to Girl Develop It, an organization that provides coding training programs to women of all backgrounds.
"There aren’t that many obvious female hacker roles for women on television," says Angie Chang, director of growth at Hackbright Academy.
But there are smaller roles, mainly in director Joss Whedon’s characters. Chang cites Willow, portrayed by Alyson Hannigan in the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Skye in the current series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both characters are computer hackers who regularly appear in the series, but they are not the main characters.
Chang is convinced that roles like this influence girls. "Television is still prevalent, and we all go to the movies. We all watch TV shows," Chang says. "Roles like this, if there are more of them and more shows, it can definitely encourage girls to pursue engineering," she adds.
"My hope is that someone like Disney or someone on an ABC show can show women in roles where they have a computer, are programming and having a lot of fun building things," Chang says, echoing Onesto’s mission with Ella the Engineer.
In general, there is a shortage of women on TV. Research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media shows that girls watch, on average, seven hours of television per day. But what they see is men consistently outnumbering women by three-to-one, where the woman typically plays an insignificant and somewhat sexualized role.
Telle Whitney, chief executive officer of the Anita Borg Institute, agrees with Chang in that girls are largely influenced by what they see in movies and television. "TV has a huge impact in terms of the role models that they see at that early age," Whitney says.
When she was in college at Berkeley, Chang started off studying computer science but eventually changed tracks. She found it difficult to shake her imposter syndrome after those first couple of classes and left the department, discouraged.
"In social circles, there’s just a lot that needs to be done in supporting girls in being leaders and technologists," says Chang.
Whitney says, "It’s really in middle school, or before, that girls who were doing quite as well as boys start losing their interest. There’s no question that their surrounding environment is a huge factor. Exposure is important such as playing games to stretch their math and programming skills."
The potential to attract women into tech exists regardless of age. Chang says, "I think it’s the entire life cycle that needs to be addressed. When they’re young, they can play with computer science Barbie and later play with the myriad iPad apps." She mentions apps that teach kids to code like Hopscotch and Scratch.
But Chang stresses that it is important to continue encouraging women to stay in the field even when they do secure good engineering jobs, later on. "When women can opt out, they will opt out," says Chang.
While a television show might not improve female engineering retention rates in the industry, it might spur more girls to enter the field in the first place. The key is exposure.
Whatever happens with Ella the Engineer, Onesto is not one to push a child into a specific profession, even if he is passionate about the campaign’s mission. To truly encourage children to explore careers, he has one piece of advice. "Give them an opportunity. Try to find out what they want to do," he says.