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Obama's chief tech boss explains the shortage of women in tech

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith Credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

It’s just a day before Americans elect their next president, but for US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith, it’s been business as usual.

“Here we are in ‘Q4,’ which is what the president calls it,” Smith told Yahoo Finance during a recent sit-down interview. “He always says great things happen in Q4. We’re just running as hard as we can.”

Smith, 52, has spent the last two years serving as assistant to the president in Washington D.C., focused on improving three key areas: technology policy, creating a digital, open government, and increasing internet access across the US.

That includes efforts such as “Computer Science for All,” which calls for $4 billion in funding for states — $100 million of which is directly allocated to the school districts — to help ensure every student K-12 has the opportunity to take computer science.

For Smith, who ascended Silicon Valley’s ranks and eventually served as vice president of Google’s (GOOG) experimental research lab Google X, the Obama administration’s Computer Science for All initiative perhaps holds particular significance since it could result in more women joining the tech industry.

Just 18% of female students majored in computer science in 2014, down from 35% in 1985 — a downward trend that continues, Smith acknowledges.

Even worse, the number of women in tech could fall from 24% today to 22% by 2025 if nothing is done to encourage more women to study computer science, according to research released this October from Accenture and Girls Who Code.

Smith blames the gender disparity in tech in part on a culture going back to the 1980s that steers boys but not girls to fields related to computer science.

“One of the challenges in that time [the 1980s] that started to happen is that we started to market the personal computer to our boys,” Smith explains. “We’ve grown up with this idea that the boys do this and the girls don’t. Seventy percent of high school computer science teachers think that boys are better than the girls, even though it’s not true. So one piece is culture and media and helping Hollywood get out of this unconscious bias.”

Another contributing factor? Current company culture, particularly at tech companies.

“It causes 40%, or a large percentage of people to just leave,” Smith adds. “So the bias in us is deep. We have to become more welcoming and inclusive.”

Paired with efforts like the Tech Inclusion Pledge, a proposal with 30-plus companies such as Airbnb, Box (BOX), Intel (INTC), Lyft and Spotify to improve the diversity of workforces and publicly disclose how they’re doing, it’s Smith’s hope that Computer Science for All will eventually reach Americans during their early, formative years. In doing so, the decline in computer female computer science majors could eventually reverse itself.

Smith’s team is not just working to make tech jobs more accessible women. Smith’s team has also worked closely on TechHire, the $100 million initiative launched by the Obama administration. TechHire’s aim: make more tech jobs available to middle- and lower-class Americans. Since TechHire’s introduction in March 2015, 50 communities from Oakland, Calif., to the Appalachia region, have signed on to the initiative in cooperation with about 1,000 employer partners. The city of Seattle, for example, plans on using TechHire to place 2,000 people in tech jobs by 2020.

Smith’s team has also made significant strides with big data. This October, as part of the Obama administration’s Opportunity Project, outside companies including Airbnb and FitBit, as well as nonprofits, launched 29 tools that aim to increase access to opportunity for communities around the US.

“It used to be there was all this data sitting, and you didn’t have access to it,” Smith says. “Now, you can surface it and do something about it.”

With less than three months until the country’s first female president is potentially inaugurated, Smith demurs when asked about the kind of lasting legacy she would like to leave once her “tour of duty” at the White House is up. But playing a role in making companies — particularly tech companies — throughout the US one day a more diverse place to work? That’s a significant legacy, if ever there were one.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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