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.

13 thoughts on “On Females and Technology

  1. It’s plausible “booth babes” and related phenomena cause some young women (possibly via their parents) to steer away from computing at university.

    But it’s certainly far more complicated than that. There are definitely major issues at the high school level or even earlier.

  2. I have no idea what the causes of the gender gap in tech are. But it’s very possible that women *currently* in tech are offended by booth babes, and they are consequently less enthusiastic about telling their younger sisters, nieces etc. how great a career in tech is.

    So this could lower interest in a tech career among women just finishing high school even if they don’t say it explicitly when you ask them.

  3. @Robert O’Callahan, azakai:

    Interesting theory, but I question how many in tech (as a percentage) really go to these conventions. They generate lots of buzz, but in general are a few thousand people at the largest during peak years. Medicine is still often a men’s club (especially older doctors) but we don’t see women turned away from medicine after being exposed to that culture (graduation rates are about 1:1). I’m virtually certain there’s more exposure there to gender bias in the job (just listen to the Dr. vs nurse stories in hospitals where any to-be doctor must do residency). I’ve heard the same of law, at least in the US, not sure what the situation is abroad. Again, we don’t see women shunning it (they are advancing). I would think the ingrained gender bias would be more of a turnoff than a few conventions or t-shirts. These events are limited and highly avoidable unless your a CEO or creating a startup. I can say personally I’ve just avoided. I hate when marketers email or call me. Why do I want to spend days with them?

    Good point regarding possibly earlier than High School Robert. I wonder if it’s a gender roll impression being given, or if it’s actually education being skewed… or something entirely different all together. When do these decisions really form?

  4. Her name’s Hopper, not Hooper.

    Also, you are spending your energy explaining in a long-winded, patronizing tone what women should or should not care about. This is poor form and has a pretty long, sad history in conversations about this topic.

    Please spend a little of the time you would spend on future posts reading some of the existing writing on the matter, both form-based (so you do not write this way again) and argument-based (so you see that the issues are not mutually exclusive, and that the things you think are important are indeed in everyone’s radar already). Start your outbound links at some of these: Mansplaining,
    Essentialism, Limited Education, Computer Science, Getting Girls Into IT

  5. I love this thing about the color blue – that’s why Facebook is a mostly male community, then… er, wait… 😉

    I may know the US education system too little, but come so few females get degrees from Standford when ~50% of the admissions are female? Are all those gifted girls dropping out or what? I would have expected the rate of people graduating being not too different from the rate of people getting admitted…

    That said, there surely is a lot that can and should be done in education, but from what I learned in classes about “gender and science education” (that I had to take at university, trying to become a science teacher) a large part of the problem there is often a social problem among the students – boys talking “girls can’t do that” and girls in their teens believing it and giving up early. I’m not saying that it’s the only factor or that it’s one for everyone, but it’s one of the factors, and it’s not easy for an educator to work against it – after all, any child only puts energy into what she personally thinks she can achieve. The “I hate math” gender problem also comes down to social interactions and motivations, from all I heard. Girls/women can do just as well as boys/men if they try just as hard, but social factors often take the motivation to try away at a very early stage.

    • @Robert Kaiser: To be clear, the 50% number is for all studies, not computer science alone. I couldn’t find the admissions for computer science alone, however there’s no indication that I could find suggesting female dropouts are significantly high. I’m certain that would set off a chain reaction if 50% enrolled freshman year and only a few percent graduated. That chart I linked to is for engineering degrees only (noteworthy). So I think we can safely conclude the problem is admissions, not that the program is gender biased to an extreme degree. Stanford isn’t stupid, and it’s students aren’t numb. We’d know if drop outs were so slanted regarding gender.

      I agree regarding motivation and gender bias at a social level. But I also question: how do we identify exactly what, and fix that? I suspect it’s not just a matter of boy’s are better talk as it’s very specific to this field. Girls do very well in medicine and law (they beat men in law degrees now, see my last comment for a link). Medicine is a science, so it’s not that. Law and medicine are both very gender bias as they are traditionally male fields (at least in the US) and still have old practitioners that believe women in the industry should only be in assistant positions (nurses, law clerks). Women do well in these industries! Why do they do well here with lots of gender bias and traditional gender rolls to break out of… but in computer science (traditionally women I may point out), they don’t even approach?

      My argument, is that as deplorable as booth girls may be, they aren’t keeping females away from the industry. Aside from this being a little known part of the industry and likely unknown to teens, I doubt any female would be so intimidated by a girl in a tank top at a convention they would avoid an entire industry as an career. In fact, I’m rather certain of it. College is full of sexuality charged culture and they don’t shy away from college (again, see links above, they do well).

  6. Sigh. Here we go again.

    Why does there have to be an even, or almost-even, or closer-than-current ,gender split for a given industry? Why do we have to “fix” a cross-gender imbalance in interests?

    Where I work there are about 15 software engineers and about the same number of hardware engineers. We have 1 woman in the software group and none in hardware. Let me assure you as strenuously as possible that we have no booth-babes at my place of employment. Nor blue decor.

    Since the gender imbalance is obviously preying on you, let me offer my theory: woman are too smart to spend 12 hours/day at a keyboard, particularly when being paid for an 8-hour work day.

  7. I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking to people who are affected by this, and have thought about it for a long time. One point that is repeatedly made is that *lots* of people think it’s a school/CS thing, and are willing to tell other people that, but very few people are willing to directly reconsider and change their own behavior to make the current environment more welcoming and less threatening to women. Such statements seem to make those women who are around even more invisible than they currently are.

    My interest in diversity is in supporting the women in the community that we have, as well as planning for the future.

    I guess my point would be that you’ve basically said “What you’re doing is wrong, what you should be doing is this”. There seems to be a lot of that around. Are you going to take steps to pursue your suggestions yourself, or do you see it as incumbent on people who are actually trying to fix the problem to adopt your suggestions?

    I see nothing wrong with identifying and fixing our existing culture, and I would argue that is actually a strong prerequisite for being even capable of upping the number of people entering CS. I can tell you that if I was a young woman, and I met someone talking to prospective CS graduates about how there’s some sort of genetic inevitability about boothbabes, talking about “females” as though they aren’t even from the same planet, and declaratively stating how to fix the problem rather than inviting a conversation with those who actually suffer from the problem directly, I don’t think I’d be very tempted to go down that road either, good intentions of said person or not.

  8. @Frank: I was reading something about that quite recently regarding color and gender. It’s a surprisingly modern convention, not nearly as old as many (especially my generation) would think. For a time it was pink, I’ve also read before that white was considered more appropriate for all children for a time.

  9. It would be worth asking why the percentage of female Computer Science students is lower in the USA than in some other developed parts of the world. My undergraduate class in CS was 30-odd percent women, and my eng class (hardware/communication eng) 17%. We had a number of women academics in our CS school up to and including professors and our Head of School.

    I do think girls get turned off early: the US seems very strong in its gender stereotypes and this doesn’t help. The princess **** that is pumped at girls here is just…odd.

    I might also note I went to an all-girl high school (do these even exist in the US?) with a strong math and science curriculum.

  10. @Laura Thomspon: That’s really interesting. Is 30% an outlier in the world or more an average?

    The US does have all-girl high schools (all levels of education actually), but they aren’t very common, especially today. They are also private, so generally for kids of well off families. I think I knowingly met 1 person who went to one for a few years. All boy schools seem slightly more common, or at least that’s my experience, I’ve got no numbers on that.

  11. Anita Borg does numbers round the world, although it’s far from comprehensive.
    anitaborg.org/files/womenhightechworld.pdf

    Interesting re the US schools, thanks. (Part of the reason my parents sent me to one was that studies showed girls do better academically at single *** schools, especially in science and math.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *