The future of women in tech [Commentary]

This article has been updated to reflect the correct field for visual arts professor Eric Smallwood. 

Thirty years ago, U.S. colleges and universities awarded 37 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees to women. Today, when that number should be approaching 50 percent, it has actually been cut in half. Women in the United States now receive just 18 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees, and less than a quarter of professionals in computing are women.


It's true that women in technology are increasingly well known. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Marissa Mayer, president and CEO of Yahoo, are household names. Among Marylanders, Stephanie C. Hill, president of Lockheed Martin's Information Systems and Global Solutions-Civil product line, stands out as a rising tech star. Ms. Hill, a UMBC graduate who leads 10,000 employees in areas ranging from cybersecurity to space exploration, was recently selected as the 2014 Black Engineer of the Year at an industry conference in Washington.

Despite these women's accomplishments, their visibility still pales in comparison to the likes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg and Steve Jobs. We must change that, and doing so starts with changing perceptions of who belongs in tech fields.


One of UMBC's top computer science students, Blossom Metevier, didn't take a single computer science course in high school, assuming the field was for "gamers and geeks." In college, she learned that computer science is foremost about problem solving, and that it was perfect for her.

Ms. Metevier recently spoke at a congressional briefing, urging lawmakers to ensure that more students are exposed to rigorous computer science courses in high school. Only 27 percent of high schools nationwide have adopted the Computer Science Teachers Association's recommended standards despite the projection that 1.4 million computer-related jobs will open in the U.S. by 2020. In cybersecurity alone, Maryland already has more than 19,000 job openings. The need to prepare more women for those jobs isn't just a matter of diversity; it's a matter of simple math.

UMBC is at the forefront of a national effort to create and promote a new Advanced Placement course that will engage students and convey a broader sense of today's computer science field. With support from the National Science Foundation, Professor Marie desJardins is training educators across Maryland to teach the course. On our own campus, Professor Penny Rheingans, director of UMBC's Center for Women in Technology, is developing a course to show students from all backgrounds that computing can be "for them," and to help them chart a path in that field.

To broaden the tech pipeline, we must also realize that the field extends well beyond computing and engineering. Areas from visual arts and communications to public policy and the humanities play vital roles in "tech" today. Beyond contributing to the development of technology, these fields help us understand its impact and how best to harness its power.

A degree in history can lead to a career developing digital museum exhibits, or a degree in health care administration can lead to a job in data visualization. In fact, a recent report by Jobs for the Future found that health informatics is by far the fastest growing segment of health care.

Undergraduates working with faculty in UMBC's Erickson School recently learned first-hand how to approach tech development from many directions. They designed potential technologies for older adults living in the year 2061, considering everything from aesthetics and usability to moral and policy implications. Likewise, music professor Linda Dusman and visual arts professor Eric Smallwood stand to revolutionize how audiences experience symphonies with the development of an app that guides people through the musical score, social context and history of a symphony performance.

By engaging with these kinds of projects, students from all backgrounds will begin to gain a fuller understanding of what "tech" means and see futures for themselves as tech professionals and entrepreneurs.

Across the country today, just 3 percent of tech firms were founded by women. To help address that disparity, UMBC developed the ACTiVATE program, which has served 120 women entrepreneurs who have gone on to form over 35 companies in Maryland in the past 10 years. In partnership with, the bwtech@UMBC research and technology park also provides ongoing training and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Today, 22 percent of bwtech@UMBC companies are owned or led by women. One such innovator is Zuly Gonzalez, co-founder and COO of Light Point Security. Founded just four years ago, the cybersecurity company has already been named a Top 5 Startup of the Year by the Wall Street Journal.


Increasing women's participation and leadership in the technology arena is certainly a matter of equity, but it is also a matter of ensuring that Maryland and the United States remain competitive in an increasingly globalized economy. We must engage the next generation of innovators — from all backgrounds — in building our future.

Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is

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