Rosie the Riveter and Women Who Pioneered the Digital Revolution

“I’ve got 99 problems but building software ain’t one.”

For girl power fans, the Rosie the Riveter meme represents that fierce, we-can-do-it attitude that inspired millions of women to join the industrial workforce during World War II. But don’t be fooled by Rosie’s throwback demeanor. She’s more relevant today than ever, with the remarkable World Cup victory of the U.S. women’s soccer team, the amazing Wimbledon run of teen phenom Cori “Coco” Gauth and the astonishing evolution of software development which was pioneered by women.

In the age of software connecting anything and everything, Rosie reminds us of the contributions women have made to the digital revolution. She also inspires us to ‘lean in’ and flex against gender bias.

But it’s also important to remember that gender bias isn’t just a woman problem. It’s a bug in the system that affects us all. Studies show that prioritizing career advancement and pay parity for women would add a staggering $12 trillion to the economy by 2025.

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem!

Bottom line: Leveling the playing field for women in tech could drive more innovation and economic growth than ever before. And, yet, when we talk about leaders of the digital revolution, male figures tend to get all the glory. The irony is that women pioneered software development that paved the way for space flight and digital transformation. We’re talking hidden figures such as Ada Lovelace, the 19th century British mathematician who wrote the first computer program, and software trailblazers Grace Hopper, Jean E. Sammet, Fran Allen, Arlene Gwendolyn Lee and Dorothy Vaughn.

All of whom showed us how to build computer applications before writing software was a thing. Oh, and Lee and Vaughn were women of color. It’s also worth noting that half of the programmers who programmed the U.S. military’s first digital computer were female.

A Glimmer of Hope

But things began to change in the 1980s. That’s when demand for personal computers and custom applications began to explode and the share of female computer science majors began to plummet from 37% to just 18% today. Perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope in the fact that the graduation rate for female computer science majors has rebounded to the point where women now make up more than half of new graduates and junior developers entering the workforce.

On the flip side, a disproportionate number of women get stuck in junior level positions which feeds into the C-Suite gap prevalent at many large companies. For example:

  • At the top 1,000 U.S. companies (by revenue) just 19% of CIOs are women
  • In the Fortune 500, only 17% of CIOs are female
  • In the Fortune 100, women make up only 22% of CIOs.

So says Deloitte.

On a related note, I recently came across a story in The New York Times which reported that on the day the U.S. Women’s soccer team won the World Cup, the U.S. men lost in a regional final. But, somehow, the question of pay parity for the women fired up a contentious debate even though the women’s team has produced more revenue than the men.

Time to Change the Conversation

“I think we’re done with: Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? Is the market the same? Yada, yada,” said American midfielder Megan Rapinoe. “It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”

The same is true of women in technology. Which reminds me of an interview we recently did with Lisa Heneghan, Global Lead for KPMG’s Technology Consulting Practice. Heneghan leads a huge network of more than 10,000 practitioners to help clients turn digital transformation strategies into business outcomes. As a sponsor of KPMG’s ‘IT’s her Future’ program, Heneghan broke down the business case for attracting more women into technology jobs and proactively developing the careers of women already working in the industry.

“So, I think this is a fantastic time for organizational diversity to massively improve,” Heneghan says. “To succeed in a world of pervasive digital disruption, companies must be customer-obsessed. And you can’t do that without greater diversity.”

Debunking the “Women Fear Technology” Myth

“One of the things I’m keen to explore is how the skills required in the technology world today are different than 5 or 10 years ago—and I think these skills actually match up very well with the inherent skills that women have.”

Part of the challenge, says Heneghan, is debunking the myth that women don’t want to be in technology. She says that the inherent skills that women bring to the table are really needed in the digital economy—skills like collaboration, openness to learning and building relationships.

That’s because in the digital economy, these high-level social skills are critical success factors. But don’t get it twisted. This doesn’t mean that we don’t also need more women with more traditional STEM skills as well, says Heneghan. There’s room for both.

“Most major organizations have some form of diversity initiative,” says Heneghan. “But for many, it’s not something that lives and breathes and has momentum. At KPMG, we’re really trying to turn the business case for diversity into business outcomes, and we are making positive progress on this.”

Why Diversity of Thinking Matters

“(Gender) diversity isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ or about checking a box on a diversity checklist,” says Heneghan. “The truth is, you can’t be a customer-focused business if you can’t build technology that works for everyone. And you can’t do that if you don’t also leverage diversity of thinking in your organization.”

Here’s another way to look at it. The Google machine says that women control or influence over 80% of consumer spending and more than $20 trillion in consumer spending globally. So, why aren’t more tech companies prioritizing hiring a workforce that looks more like the consumers who buy and use their products?

“If you look at the most successful businesses,” says Heneghan, “they recognize that the only way to be successful is to leverage diversity of thinking. And you need women as part of your team to do that.”

Can I get a witness from the congregation?

 

 

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