Tomorrow, I’m going to be on a panel discussion about women in technology, moderated by the very inspirational, crater-shirt-rocking Karen Lopez. The discussion’s key focus is gender disparity in IT, the why and how and how much. And it got me thinking, both about women in technology, and about Women in Technology, and how the lack of the former is the why of the latter.
In 1991, women held 36% of all computer-related jobs in this country. By 2008, that percentage had dropped to 25. Of the few women who do go into the tech industry, even fewer stay more than a decade. According to a report by Dr. Catherine Ashcroft and Sarah Blithe from the National Center for Women & Information Technology:
“Forty-one percent of women leave technology companies after 10 years of experience, compared to only 17 percent of men…Fifty-six percent of women in technology companies leave their organizations at the mid-level point (10-20 years) in their careers.”
So that’s the what. But why? Knowing how to program might not always garner you an iPad and a $10k signing bonus, but it does, and has ensured relatively high pay for relatively low stress (in CareerCast’s annual list of best jobs, “Software Engineer” is always in the top 10). So why the dearth? The NCWIT report looks to The Athena Factor, which puts the blame on “the lack of mentors or female role models.” But that doesn’t really answer anything---there is a lack of female role models because there is a lack of females, and there is a lack of females because there is a lack of female role models.
Melissa Anderson, in a post written for GlassHammer on why women are fleeing the tech field, includes these explanations from Dr. Ashcroft:
- the dot-com burst in the late ’90s leading to a perception that there aren’t any jobs in the field
- a perception that technology and computer-related jobs have been outsourced to people in countries outside the US
- a misunderstanding about what the field really is
- higher visibility of other science fields
- and an image that these jobs are “nerdy or geeky”
I’m going to ignore the first two reasons, as they aren’t gender-specific. On the surface, the fifth is a bit problematic---I picture a Valley Girl fluffing her hair, Like, omigod, a programmer? You’re such a nerd. But.
Make that Valley Girl ten years younger, an actual girl. Sit her in a school desk. Give her a My Little Ponies notebook and glasses she is embarrassed of. The girl doesn’t know what she is good at yet; she still wants to be a princess when she grows up. One day, her teacher has everyone write a fairy tale. The fairy tale is supposed to have a moral in it (they are reading Grimm’s) and the girl forgets this, but her fairy tale is so good, so Grimmly gruesome and scary and full of sacks of emeralds and gossamer wings, that nobody notices.
“You’re going to be a writer,” the teacher tells her. ‘Am I?’ the girl wonders.
This prediction is echoed again and again as the girl gets older. ‘You’re so creative. Such an imagination. No doubt we’ll see your name in print someday.’ It doesn’t matter that she isn’t good at math, the girl’s mother tells her. Nobody is good at everything. The girl is surprised. Is she bad at math? It isn’t as easy for her as English is, but does not being good mean she is, then, bad?
In high school, her guidance counselor advises her to take the advanced English and History and language classes. ‘What about biology?’ the girl wants to know. ‘What about calculus?’ The guidance counselor laughs; stick to your strengths.
By college, all thoughts of biology and calculus are pushed out of the girl’s mind. One of the best things about her college, her advisor tells her, is that she only has to take one math or science class---and it can be “The History of Medicine!” She takes ‘The History of Medicine.” It is mostly Foucault’s Birth of a Clinic. “Man will be totally and definitively cured only if he is first liberated.”
When the research firm Campos conducted a “discouragement” survey among female and underrepresented minority members of the AMC, a full 50% of Hispanic women said they had at some point encountered discouragement related to their field of work. 41% of all affirmative respondents said the discouragement happened in high school, and 60% said it occurred in college---most often from their professors.
The study didn’t say why the discouragement occurred, but I can guess: the respondents were not exceptional at chemistry. As girls, we’re assumed to be either really good at math or we’re not good at all (the same goes, I think, for boys and the fine arts).
So that, then, is the why. The reason more women aren’t going into technological careers is because, as little girls, they weren’t brilliant at math, and therefore were not exposed to the possibility of a career in technology or were actively discouraged from pursuing one. The fix for this is, as Tom LaRock wrote in his excellent WIT post, encouragement:
“Have a daughter or niece? Hand her one of your old laptops and point her to Scratch, or to learn about Rails. Make certain they know that ANY field they want to pursue is one at which they can excel.”
It’s my hope that with enough encouragement, at some point in the (hopefully not too-distant) future, WIT will be as moot as the Boston Irish Red Sox Fan Club.