Women in Tech: A Primer

It seems like I am often giving well-meaning men (and sometimes women) a basic overview in the issues women face in the tech industry. I wrote something along those lines the other week, but here is something more comprehensive.

It’s a Societal Problem

Let’s start with the most horrifying finding – more parents encourage their daughters to be actresses than engineers (in the US). This is to career advice what “buy a lottery ticket” is to financial planning.

Meanwhile, female teachers who are anxious about math, may pass that anxiety on to their female students. Girls brought up doubting their ability, being praised for “being good” rather than “working hard”, find it harder to take the growth mindset that STEM requires (for more on fixed vs growth mindsets, see Carol Dweck’s work – Amazon).

This is the kind of thing that socialises girls out of STEM, and it’s not like the toy industry helps – how is it, in 2013, LEGO adding a female scientist is exciting? People talk about neurological differences, but what the neuroscience measures is not possible to split out from the socialisation. I.e. you can’t measure nature without accounting for nurture – this is what is explored in depth in Delusions of Gender (Amazon).

For a shorter explanation, you can see my friend Terri‘s presentation How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

Universities Have to Change

Carnegie Mellon now has around 33% women  graduating in Computer Science. They overhauled the curriculum, admissions process amongst other things – a process detailed in Unlocking the Clubhouse (Amazon).

Harvey Mudd is also doing incredible things and is now nearly 40% of graduating students in Computer Science are women.

Redesigning first year curriculum so it is more inclusive (i.e. doesn’t expect that students have been coding since they were tiny) is key. Universities, and particularly first year lecturers, have to be willing to do the work here, and rewarded when they do. These examples are so visible because they are the exception and not the norm.

Yes, the redesign benefits women, but it also benefits the men who don’t identify with the hard core hacker stereotype.

In the Workplace

Women drop out from STEM from the age of 5. But in the workplace, there are a surprising number of women at lower levels, it’s at mid-career that women leave… and don’t come back.

It’s not because they are having children. So all the discussion around work-life balance, and support for working mothers will only get us so far, and it’s not to where we need to be.

Women leave because they don’t see a clear path to success. They leave because they feel isolated. But mostly, the biggest reason they leave is because they are tired of the casual sexism (63% of women in STEM report being sexually harassed), and the micro-aggressions.

They leave because risky behavior patterns are rewarded – saves the day in a crisis gets more recognition that made sure there was never a crisis in the first place.

A woman cannot survive a failure. So they become risk-averse in a culture where risk is rewarded. [Source]

Companies try to address these issues (in particular the isolation) with mentorship, but what is more effective is sponsorship. The promotion of women on achievements, whilst men are more likely to get promoted on potential is also an issue.

Another issue, particularly relevant to the tech industry, is that the idea of meritocracy actually increases displays of cognitive bias.

Women Don’t Ask (Amazon) is an amazing look at how women are socialised not to ask, and the effects when they do. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (Amazon) is a good look at the issues women face in the workplace, the ways in which we hold ourselves back, but also the ways in which the environment does.

In Wider Internet Culture

If you haven’t read danah boyd’s account of her experience at the Web 2.0 Expo, read it. Then, consider how Kathy Sierra quit the internet. In case you think that things have changed since then, look at the reaction when it was revealed that the creator of “I Fucking Love Science” is a woman. Now see this (read upwards).

no death threats

That is the context for things like: speaking engagements, blogging, participating in open source.

It’s not quite as easy a decision, or experience, for women to do these things – all of which help people get ahead in this field.

One of my favourite web projects is PostSecret, which is run by a man. It’s a beautiful idea, and lovely project. But sometimes I wonder, could it be that successful if it were run by a woman? For starters, any women putting her address openly on the internet like that… I would think they were completely mad to do so.

Things To Do

Long list of doom and gloom here, but here are some actions.

  1. Check your cognitive bias. Everyone has it, go take the test. The more you know about it, the more you can watch out for it. One easy exercise – go through any feedback you write on women (or other minorities) and look out for ways in which you might have allowed cognitive bias to influence your wording, or impression. Critiquing women for being less confident, too confident, not assertive enough, too assertive, or under-appreciating work for the collective are good places to start.
  2. Challenge yourself to go somewhere you feel other. One exercise I have done with guys, is that I have sent them to the beauty area of a department store (inspired by going to L’Occitane with a male friend to buy a gift, and every time I turned around he shuffled out of it). Go and buy something at the makeup counter, and watch how you feel. Even if no-one does or says anything that isn’t completely welcoming, check your feelings – do you feel out of place? Uncomfortable?
  3. Don’t just Mentor, Sponsor. Have a high potential woman? Can you give her an opportunity rather than just someone to talk to?


Things To Avoid

  1. Don’t be defensive. Just because you “meant well” and “love women” and doesn’t mean you never made one feel uncomfortable or out of place in this industry. If a woman mentions something that she has encountered, don’t play it down. Don’t try to minimise your fault by making her think the problem is her interpretation of it. We’ve all done stuff. The thing is to be self-aware, and do better, not to compound it by denying it.
  2. Don’t look to women for all the answers. Shocker – we’re individuals, and we all have a different priority list of the problems (or, some of us don’t notice them at all). I’ve tried to present this as the research, and not my opinion – but my opinion shaped how I phrased it, what got included, and what got highlighted.
  3. Don’t deny the extent of the problem. The data shows that – women are just as capable, given structural changes (see the universities) can be just as successful, and yet we are so far from equal representation. That is a big problem. But, it’s made up, for the most part, of tiny, easy to dismiss problems. There is no silver bullet, there is no one thing that will be transformative.

35 thoughts on “Women in Tech: A Primer

  1. “That is a big problem. But, it’s made up, for the most part, of tiny, easy to dismiss problems.” And the solution, it’s made up, for the most part, of tiny, easy to dismiss successes. Like the Lego Female scientist. Maybe long, long overdue, but celebrate successes so people (men) know what to copy, not just what to avoid, because otherwise we figure it’s too difficult / dangerous to get involved and let someone else solve it.

    1. sorry I should have been clearer there – I actually love the post on the female LEGO scientist, but I am disappointed that it took that long.

  2. The men and women I surround myself with are competent technologists. I try to imagine them replacing their usual discussions with sermons like this one and can only see it as a step away from equality — because competency in our field is ultimately the only sustainable source of equality! How fair is it, in other words, that you expect people to be thinking about this sort of thing rather than an aspect of a programming language they are designing or application they are developing?

    I understand that a few specialists must take on the burden of adopting these talking points so they can go teach people who are not competent (the people who think Hollywood is a good career option, for example) and who will not be emptying their head of inventions in order to take on this way of thinking about everything, but the audience of this site seems to be people with actual contributions to make to science and technology and I disagree those contributions are an acceptable opportunity cost to pay in order to read and adopt this primer.

    Submitted respectfully as I do appreciate your writing this essay, and I do understand that you see this idea as one that can be adopted with no significant opportunity cost, or that is worth the opportunity cost.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      But – I disagree with you. I write about a mix of tech and non-tech stuff, I’ve written about the issues of women for a long time, and I think I know what the audience of my blog reads – it’s heavily female, it’s often this kind of stuff.

      I object to your use of the word “sermon” – this is a heavily researched article, not a quasi-religious opinion.

    2. Respectfully, Michael, the women surrounding you are already distracted from “inventions” by the sexism described extensively in the article. So claiming that men having to waste precious brainpower is an opportunity cost ignores the more significant opportunity cost (and injustice!) of driving smart women out of your industry–which conveniently reinforces your privileged position.

    3. Or, more succinctly: being a decent human being is a distraction from the actual important stuff.

      And I don’t understand how you think the author’s suggestions constitute a “significant opportunity cost.” These are not Herculean tasks.

  3. Great article. Appreciate the 6 recommendations. I’ve thought for a while now that since a large portion of the problem is the result of a lot of people doing a bunch of ~small things ~regularly, that a large portion of the solution should be the result of a lot of people changing a bunch of ~small ~regular behaviours. The six recommendations seem to fit the bill, thanks!

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