Can microinternships help more women break into tech?

CHICAGO — The point of a college internship is for students to gain experience—an introduction to a career field they are interested in and a chance to make professional connections that can lead to a job postgraduation. But what happens if you don’t have enough experience to get an internship that is supposed to give you experience?

That’s what Break Through Tech, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of women graduating with technology degrees, found when its first classes of students went to apply for summer internships. While career experience was a critical part of their plan to get more women into tech jobs, only a tiny fraction of those students—5 percent—made it to that first career step of getting a paid summer internship. They weren’t even getting called for interviews.

The students were “stuck in this catch-22,” said Debbie Marcus, senior director with the group. “They don’t have enough experience to get the experience.” 

The big idea: That’s a growing realization in higher education, especially among institutions and organizations interested in getting more women and people of color into careers where they’re underrepresented. To address that challenge, Break Through Tech hit on an idea that’s slowly gaining momentum: microinternships—or what it calls a “sprinternship.”

These bite-size internships, of up to four weeks, were popularized by companies like Parker Dewey over the past few years and began growing in earnest during the pandemic—popping up at both small private colleges, such as Goucher and Ithaca, and large publics like the University of South Florida and Sacramento State University. They aim to create pathways into the longer internships that often lead to jobs, or to shorten the internship timeline altogether.

A tailored approach: Break Through Tech was an early adopter with a laser focus on getting more women into tech careers. Many of its participants are first-generation students from middle-class and lower-income backgrounds, and they commonly need to work to support themselves or their families. They don’t have the time for or access to activities, such as weekend hackathons or coding camps, that hiring companies are looking for among intern candidates.

So Break Through Tech designed a three-week paid “sprinternship”—a crash course in applying computer science knowledge in a workplace—with those students’ specific needs in mind. The students go into companies in groups of five, so they gain experience working on team-based projects and have peer support. They also are assigned coaches from their home university and get targeted support with networking and crafting resumes. It’s an approach that led to a 10-fold increase in the share of participants landing their first summer internship. 

“It’s a unique model,” says Amita Shetty, the director of Break Through Tech Chicago, the organization’s second program, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Its design “allows companies to make a small lift—meanwhile, the student is getting a sliver of the workplace in just three weeks.”

Tackling twin challenges

What’s at stake: Break Through Tech’s microinternships aim to address two major challenges at the same time: first, the massive underrepresentation of women—especially women of color—in tech. Second, the challenge of getting students the early work-based experience they need to successfully enter careers and thrive down the road.

Nationally, women represent about 49 percent of the workforce but only 26 percent of tech occupations—and Black and Latina women are even more underrepresented. Women also are more likely to be in marketing, management and other business roles in the tech industry, as opposed to jobs in the technical fields that tend to be more lucrative.

Source: Cyberstates 2021, CompTIA

For companies, the lack of diversity in tech is a challenge for core business functions—hampering creativity, perspective, broad appeal—and increasingly is a drag on brand and public perception. As companies take a wider view of what it means to be a good corporate citizen, it also undercuts their commitment to equity and employee well-being. And for the millions of women, Black and Latino workers, it means that they are cut off from one of the fastest-growing paths to economic security and advancement.

In Chicago, the median wage for tech workers is $79,430—78 percent higher than the median across all jobs. And men dominate those roles in the city, just as they do across the country. The disparity starts early, with women less likely to land the internships and co-ops that provide experience and entrée into the industry.

“It shouldn’t have to be so hard to break down the door,” Marcus said.

A broker for diverse talent

How they do it: Break Through Tech started five years ago with funding from Verizon after Judith Spitz, one of the few female CIOs at a Fortune 500, left the company. From its home base in New York City, the program has since expanded to Chicago and will add university partners in the D.C. metro area this fall. The program is designed to sit at the intersection of higher education and industry, with a focus on three “C’s”—curriculum innovation, career preparation and a community that offers support and encouragement when the path gets hard, Marcus says. 

What they found when it came to career was a series of disconnects: companies said they wanted a diverse talent pool, but they weren’t actually hiring many women, especially women of color. Women were more likely than men to attend college and graduate—and many had experience with programs designed to get young girls interested in STEM—and yet they were still earning computer science and other tech degrees in relatively low numbers. Supply and demand just didn’t seem to match up.

So, Break Through Tech took on the role of translator, working to connect the two sides of the talent equation. It specifically focuses on creating on-ramps to tech careers by reaching students early, with students typically participating in the sprinterships in their freshman or sophomore year.

Break Through Tech acts as a “broker” between students and companies. Instead of sprinternship students going through traditional interviews for positions, the program recruits companies and matches them with participants based on their skills and interests and the companies’ needs. Program leaders also solicit regular feedback from companies on the skill sets participants need and look for ways to fill any gaps with additional UIC instruction or material taught by the companies themselves.

“Everything we do, the goal is to either reduce the friction or absorb some of that so that the students can actually make it to these careers,” Shetty says. 

For participating companies, the cost to host a team of five students ranges from $10,000 to $15,000, which Shetty sees as a relatively light investment for those seeking to diversify their talent pipeline. And the program works hard to maximize the time and investment for both companies and students.

Wraparound experience: Three weeks is not a long time. If something goes wrong or is off, time can be wasted, and the experience could be over before it is fixed. So Break Through Tech puts students through a thorough onboarding process to ensure they’re prepared. The team setup also helps, with students bringing different skills and helping each other to problem solve. UIC coaches check in with the teams once a week to encourage the students and talk through approaches to any issues or problems that come up. 

The whole thing is a “wraparound experience,” Shetty says.

On the company side, Break Through Tech has developed a flexible framework for what experiences to provide beyond the core project, including attending staff meetings, meeting executives to learn about their jobs and career paths, and getting résumé and interview help.

Early outcomes: The model has shown early success. For participants in New York, the first city the organization operated in, the number getting summer internships went from 5 percent to 50 percent. And in Chicago, which held its first sprinternship period in May, more than 20 percent of the interns were offered paid summer internships or full-time jobs.

That kind of immediate response was a surprise to Shetty, given the fact that most companies had already completed their summer recruiting cycle.

Historically, many of the companies involved did not intentionally or actively recruit women from UIC’s computer science program, says Shetty, who worked in private industry in Chicago before coming to the university. UIC is one of the most ethnically and economically diverse institutions in the country, according to national rankings, and is a federally designated minority-serving institution. Almost 40 percent of students are first generation and 60 percent are Pell Grant eligible. Forty percent come from high schools in the Chicago Public Schools.

“The talent we have is an untapped opportunity,” Shetty says.

Why internships matter

The theory: Work experience in a field relevant to students’ studies is critical to helping smooth the transition to early career. Internships, in particular, help students connect what they’re learning to the “real world” and explore roles or even entire career fields they may not have been aware of. 

They’re also key in building professional networks that can help a graduate get their first job, especially in competitive industries such as technology. Last year, eight in 10 interns who were available for hire received a full-time offer from the company they worked for.

Who gets them? In last year’s internship cycle, 58 percent of interns were men, and 62 percent were white, according to survey research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And the internships that women and students from underrepresented minority groups get also are more likely to be unpaid, according to research from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin. 

Paid internships are important, Shetty says, because paid work sets students up for higher wages. And students from working-class backgrounds, like the ones in Break Through Tech, typically cannot afford to do an unpaid internship, because they must earn money to live. Unpaid internships serve to widen the gap between the most privileged students, who do not need to work in the summers or during the school year, and those who do.

Learning lessons you can’t in a classroom

UIC computer science students (L-R) Emily Carroso, Ifra Rabbani, Megan Herrera, and Daniela Rodriguez work during their “sprinternship” at the U.S. Soccer Federation. (Jim Young/UIC Engineering)

In action: Break Through Tech encourages companies to give students a problem they’ve been wanting to address but haven’t gotten around to, with the intention of giving it a jump start with students. Real issues, not busywork. 

It’s also a chance to see how the professional world works outside the classroom. 

For Zara Farin, a third-year student from India, her sprinternship at UI Health helped her see the business side of tech jobs. Her team was given the project of beginning to develop a health-care provider–specific search engine, which would allow doctors and other providers to quickly search medical journals, patient notes and even their own notes from medical school or residency in order to assist patients during doctor visits. 

The project, which the team worked on remotely, involved learning new software for Farin. It also involved her needing to talk to vendors and pricing out software they might use to combine all these data sets in one place. Learning she enjoyed the business aspect of the work, which wasn’t covered in her computer science classes, opened up more possibilities for what she may do with her computer science degree after graduation. 

Confidence and community

For Daniela Rodriguez, one of the biggest takeaways was a fresh boost of confidence.

Rodriguez, who just finished her first year at UIC, did her three-week sprinternship at U.S. Soccer. She was the youngest on the team. The students worked on finding ways to integrate the organization’s data from multiple platforms into one place. They also received lessons in confidence—attending a workshop connected to a women’s empowerment program, SheBelieves, run by U.S. Soccer. 

Among the things the students learned from their mentors: confidence poses such as stretching out to take up as much space as possible, or standing in the superhero pose to help overcome nerves. They put them to work before their big presentation at the end of the three weeks. 

And the students weren’t just learning, but also offering their experience and viewpoints. SheBelieves is primarily targeted at younger girls, and U.S. Soccer turned to the UIC students for ideas on how to expand to reach more college-age women.

Parting thought: The whole experience gave Rodriguez a sense of community that she was lacking because of the pandemic and remote classes. And it countered the feelings of impostor syndrome and not belonging that Rodriguez felt when she took her first computer science courses, which were dominated by male students.

For her second year, Rodriguez wants to work with the college’s Women in Computer Science group to host hackathons and other activities designed to draw in female students and show there is a place for them in the tech world, too.

“My biggest inspiration is, I want other girls to diversify the tech field like we are doing and have the confidence to continue on,” Rodriguez says. To know “it’s okay—there’s now more females in it.”