AI that struggles to recognise darker skin; databases that don’t accept name changes – both are the result of the assumptions written into the code. Getting a different viewpoint’s not just a worthy idea; it’s critical to our software-driven future. One Australian software company is trying to switch things up to achieve just that.
The phrase “diversity in coding” is almost a cliché at this point. It’s an inherent good, something schools have been enthusiastic about for years. Any software engineering company worth its website will tell you it’s keen to improve the gender and cultural balance of its staff.
But while this cause has spurred hundreds of scholarships, programmes, and initiatives, there’s scant public evaluation data – and thus, not much evidence on how effective each one is. Meanwhile, women’s actual participation in the engineering workforce continues to rise at a snail’s pace.
So it’s unsurprising that some software companies are trying other methods to diversify their staff. One company – Stile, based in Melbourne and making education software – has just begun its second year of an unusual internship program.
“Our strategy was kind of the same as everybody’s,” says Shaun O’Keefe, head of Platform Engineering at Stile, when explaining how he helped design the internship.
“It was that you are very positive about getting more women into engineering […], but you were basically counting on people coming to you.”
The female engineers weren’t landing on Stile’s doorstep at the pace they’d hoped for. This was strange – it seemed to O’Keefe and colleagues that there were plenty of female high school students who were good at maths and science. But these faces disappeared from university classes.
They realised that trying to hire to hire female university graduates might be failing to address the problem at the source.
“We kind of came up with the idea that maybe something just really bad was going wrong, in that transition from high school to university,” says O’Keefe.
Their hunch was correct: there is a gap between high school girls’ interest in engineering and their entry at university. According to the federal government’s STEM Equity Monitor, just over half of girls aged 14-17 said they were interested and confident in technology subjects (51% interested, 53% confident), while around a third thought the same of engineering (35% and 31%).
All of these numbers are lower than the boys’, but the real cliff comes at university entry. In 2019, 18% of engineering undergraduates were female, while IT could boast 19%. These numbers have crept up from 15% and 16%, respectively, in 2015. (Natural sciences, by contrast, have sat roughly at equity for two decades.)
“We can work on understanding that problem of what happens between high school and the workforce for women engineers, but for the time being, can we just completely short circuit that and bring women straight into engineering from the point they graduate?” says O’Keefe.
Stile asked the schools it works with to recommend women, or non-binary people, graduating that year. Two of these students were offered a paid, year-long internship in software engineering. The interns spent six months learning everything Stile thought a software engineer needed to know, and six months carrying out projects at the education company.
O’Keefe is not trying to lock the interns into employment at Stile once their year is up.
“We make sure that all of our interns get a chance to talk to a lot of our engineers who feel quite strongly about tertiary education,” he says.
“And we also made sure they get to talk to a lot of our engineers who say you can get along quite well without it. We also organised for interns to meet with a bunch of people from other companies […] so that if they do say ‘look, I love engineering, but maybe Stile’s not the place for me’, they have a big group of people that they can talk to.”
So far, this approach has yielded good results for the company: after its inaugural year, one of the interns is now working with Stile full-time, while the other is working with them part-time and starting a university degree.
Stile is not trying to pretend they’ve fixed the women in coding problem with this – either externally or internally. There’s still plenty of work to do.
Beyond the internship, “we’re trying to be more inclusive of who we are looking for,” says Makeila Reyes, head of People and Culture.
“So that everyone can see themselves working at Stile. It’s not just a tech company where you have to be, you know, playing ping pong and drinking beers at 5pm.”
This requires changes to the hiring process, the flexibility of roles and work in the company, but there are benefits that come with it as well.
“I think there’s two sides to [diversity in coding]. There’s what it means that people who are brought into the industry who wouldn’t have been included otherwise, and what it means for the industry,” says O’Keefe.
“Software engineering is this massive social mobility engine.” In a booming industry, a “smart and motivated” person will have their pick of work to do, according to O’Keefe.
But this is not simply a case of who gets the highest-paid jobs. Software engineers are designing tools that must be used by – or on – everyone.
“If you have a group of guys who all went to the same high school, to the same uni, writing code for that product, then you’re going to have that preconceived notion that everyone’s going to be using it in the same way,” says Reyes.
This can be as simple as the assumption that every school is well-stocked with devices. “Does everyone even have a laptop? If they don’t have a laptop, do the people have smartphones? Do people have tablets?” says Reyes.
This problem isn’t just at a business level. Names are a simple example: many databases aren’t properly equipped to handle non-Western name structures, or name changes – common among married women and transgender people.
But these built-in limitations can also be more insidious – especially in AI. Facial recognition technologies are often more likely to mis-identify women and people with darker skin. And the Australian Human Rights Commission released a technical paper in 2020 showing that in their simulation, an AI retailing tool would learn to offer more expensive electricity plans to minority groups in the interests of maximising profit.
Reyes says these oversights aren’t avoidable by “just interpreting something that you’ve read yourself or watched yourself”. It requires listening to the right people in the room when the tools are being developed, too.
“You have to be willing to put in both of those things,” says Reyes.
“Fundamentally, we’ll be hamstrung by what backgrounds and ways of thinking we have access to in our staff,” summarises O’Keefe.
He believes that Stile’s position as an education company – staffed by, and catering to, teachers from a range of diverse backgrounds – has made it easier to both recognise and address this problem.
“Software engineers really, really like to consider they are the pace setters. They’re going to dictate how a certain product or a certain idea works, and everyone comes along.” he says.
But in education, “there’s so many different people, who have so many different needs. You’re not going to succeed if you don’t sit down and listen. And if we took the approach of a normal software company, I think we would really struggle.”
Reyes says that the specific demand of education requires more diverse thinking from Stile’s staff. Rather than capture people’s eyeballs for an afternoon, their products are aiming to change how students’ minds work.
“You have to account for all of those ways that people learn and ways that teachers teach. So I think, by default we’re already in that [diverse] headspace.”
Although it’s reaped plenty of benefits for the company, both O’Keefe and Reyes are clear that this internship exists, first and foremost, as a public good. It’s not going to change the world, but hopefully it’s part of a bigger national change.
“Right now, we’re only hiring two people,” says Reyes.
“I think a goal of ours is to make this program something that all the schools are talking about. Something that you really want to get into.”
“Software engineering is one of the primary mechanisms by how we shape the future,” says O’Keefe.
“If you have a lot of white males being the only people who are working in technology, then you have a future that’s going to primarily be shaped by white men.”
Originally published by Cosmos as Cracking open the code
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.