On Females and Technology

There’s been a fair amount of talk over the past few years about the large gender gap in the technology industry. The reality is there are few women in technical roles, and the few that are even in the industry gravitate towards more managerial, design and product roles.

A recent trend has been to blame certain sexist aspects of the industry like booth babes at conferences and other sexist promotions. I’ve even heard a theory suggesting that the popularity of the color blue is part of the problem (looking at you Facebook). While these are deplorable, minus the color blue theory, and I don’t want to make excuses for these 1960’s era holdovers (mind you they are also done by marketing folks), I can’t help but think this is scapegoating the issue that nobody wants to talk about, and everyone seems to want to hide.

Technology isn’t turning away women, it’s finding it almost impossible to recruit them. I’d love it if someone were to survey High School seniors applying to colleges this fall and see how many are considering computer science, and if they aren’t, why not. I’d can pretty confidently say that not one of them would mention sexist t-shirts being used by product marketing. I can also pretty confidently say booth babes won’t come up. I suspect most 17 year old high school girls haven’t been exposed to either. “No other girls” might be a popular reason. “I hate math” may be a big one. I’m sure there will be many reasons of varying popularity, but I suspect sexist marketing and suggestive jokes won’t even make the top 10. Females also tend to be more social by nature (we even see this even in statistics of the number of Facebook friends), the idea of engineering studies and work not being social is likely also a major issue. Tech likely doesn’t have the best work/life balance overall.

The truth of the matter is women represent 57% of college enrollment since 2000. From what I’ve been reading that gap is only expected to increase in coming years and in many schools is well beyond 57% already. Only 25 (7 BS, 17 MS, 1 PHD) or 9.5% of degrees were given to women at Stanford in 2010. The other 90.5% went to men. That means the workforce leaving Stanford and looking for technology jobs is 90.5% male. You could argue Stanford has a history of being male dominated (“Stanford ratio”) but recent admissions are almost 50/50 for undergrads as a whole. Another paper [pdf] suggests 13.8% of BS degrees went to women. That is the source of the gender gap in the industry. It starts much earlier than the attendance of trade shows. I’d also argue most in the industry never even attend these silly things as not many like being attacked by sales people for a few days, but that’s almost another topic.

I suspect the reason why marketers are using booth babes and sexist jokes to attract the attention of men is because nearly 90% of their audience is men. Again, that doesn’t excuse the behavior, it explains it. Lowest cost for the most eyeballs is a skinny 18-21 year old college student who will wear a tight shirt and smile for a few hours and hand out marketing material to get some cash. Men are wired to notice as a primordial reflex. It’s just taking advantage of psychology and evolution.

Want to address the problem? Stop focusing on t-shirt slogans and start focusing on why less than 10% of computer science degrees are going to women and fix that. That is the big problem. If even half the outrage was directed at high schools and colleges for perpetuating the problem, things would be much better off. Searching Google shows a ton of outrage towards booth babes, but almost nothing towards the gender gap in education. That’s depressing and almost seems superficial. As if the goal is to look less sexist rather than increase diversity.

I love that some efforts are being made on the grassroots level. PyStar is a very good idea to plant some “you could do this as a career” ideas in the minds of women who may otherwise just shun it in what sounds like a great environment. Open Source is a gateway drug to software development making WoMoz a great initiative (are there others out there?).

As a little tidbit, it wasn’t always this way. It used to be considered a woman’s job to program computers. Just ask Grace Hopper (as a sidenote, Grace Hooper had great whit in addition to brains and I encourage reading some quotes). In those days it was viewed as being similar to being a secretary or switchboard operator. Clearly the problem is solvable.

Again, I don’t mean to downplay booth babes and sexist marketing (though I’m sure someone will still attack my inbox for it, that’s just the way it works), I’m just stating that if you think that’s the problem, your in a bubble. That’s a problem we hope to have in 8-10 years of aggressive efforts to change the tide. The problem is much earlier in the chain and is sadly likely more difficult to fix. You could get rid of booth babes and sexist marketing tonight and in 5 years will see no change in gender diversity if that’s the only action taken. Lastly it’s worth noting there are other tracks into the industry (my BS is for Business Administration, I specialized in Management Information Systems). What role do those play? Lets figure out why colleges aren’t graduating even 25% and figure out how as an industry to move that number.

Number Based Consumerism

Number based consumerism is when a consumer bases their buying habits on one or more numbers typically part of a products specifications. You likely see this all the time, and perhaps even have been guilty of it yourself. It’s most prevalent in technology though it exists in other sectors.

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Einstein Nobel Paradox

Albert Einstein and Alfred Nobel share a unique bond in the form of a paradox resulting in their accomplishments. While there’s no explicit answer on how to avoid such a situation it’s interesting to look at how these two bright minds made history.

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel is generally remembered as the guy behind the Nobel prize. The good thing is that this is exactly what he wanted. Some will recall he is also the one who patented dynamite. Note that dynamite is essentially nitroglycerin, something he didn’t invent mixed with an inert absorbent ingredient to make it more stable and safer to handle. The combination is his invention. Alfred’s brother Emil years earlier died in nitroglycerine explosion at the family factory. The very nature of the business was somewhat controversial due to the safety issues.

Nobody knows the exact reason why Alfred Nobel created the Nobel prize because the man was reclusive and somewhat eccentric. The most accepted story is that when his brother Ludvig visited him in 1888 and died a newspaper confused the brothers and accidentally printed his obituary instead. The headline read “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”). Needless to say he was likely not thrilled about his potential legacy.

Alfred Nobel’s invention was used for a time for military purposes (though dynamite was hardly an ideal military weapon and was eventually replaced). His actual intent was the complete opposite of his reputation. His very invention was designed to make explosives safer to use and potentially make mining safer.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is best known as the father of modern physics, the author of extremely complicated papers, and as an eccentric brilliant professor. Fewer people know that he had some involvement in the development of the atomic bomb.

His involvement came in the form of a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt known as the Einstein–Szilárd letter which helped kick off the United States development of the bomb. The letter was largely written by a physicist named Leó Szilárd, the man who conceived the nuclear chain reaction and warned that Germany may be working on such an effort.

To put this into context, by 1939 Albert Einstein was already a very prominent scientist. He actually won a Nobel prize in 1921 “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. The letter was delivered to the president by prominent economist Alexander Sachs. Needless to say FDR listened. The rest is history.

It’s worth noting he didn’t participate in the actual development as he was a German (he gained US citizenship a year later in 1940) who supported left-leaning activities. He couldn’t have had security clearance. Einstein clarified his involvement and reasoning in the short essay “On my involvement in the atomic bomb project“.

History suggests that Einstein was well-intentioned by signing the letter but later regretted after the bomb was dropped.

On Monday August 19, 1946 the New York Times printed a story on the front page titled “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb“. You can pretty much guess the tone of that article.

In 1955 The Philadelphia Bulletin quoted Dr. Linus Pauling as being told by Einstein before his death “I made on great mistake when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made” in an article titled “Scientist Tells Of Einstein’s A-Bomb Regrets“. Dr. Linux Pauling was also a member of Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists along with the aforementioned Linus Pauling and Leó Szilárd. The group was intended to raise awareness to the danger of atomic weapons and promote peaceful use of nuclear energy.

On Feb 19, 1979 Time magazine wrote:

Later, when A-bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein expressed deep regret. After the war, he apologized personally —and in tears—to visiting Japanese Physicist Hideki Yukawa. On another occasion, he said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb.”

That quote is likely originally from Newsweek in the 1950’s.

Einstein is also often quoted as stating: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” It is sometimes quoted as “rocks” in place of “sticks and stones”. I’ve yet to find the definitive origin of it.

Einstein was really a pacifist and a scientist, not a weapons engineer. One can’t help but think this really bothered him.

The paradox

Both of these brilliant men dedicated their lives to inventions, research, theories and acts that were intended to better humanity. Dynamite likely did save many lives and allow for mining quicker and cheaper which affected society in many indirect ways. We likely still don’t fully grasp what Albert Einstein was writing about yet he managed to completely change physics.

If it’s not grossly apparent already, both men had a great impact in the world and it would be a different place without them.

Both of these brilliant men also had the misfortune of having their life work used in ways they had never wanted or intended and died with the thought that their work had brought misfortune to others. “No good deed goes unpunished” I guess is another way to put it.