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.

Remember: Winning Isn’t Normal

Winning Isn’t Normal is a great blog post by Jason Shen about just how much goes into being good at something. Particularly great is this quote:

Remember one thing… winning isn’t normal. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with winning. It just isn’t the norm. It is highly unusual … So it requires unusual action. In order to win, you must do extraordinary things.

It seems too many people forget that, and I’m certain I’m no exception to that. Putting intelligence and innate gifts aside (they only get you so far), being good at something to the point of earning any respect takes an incredible amount of effort, sacrifice and time. The old standard for being viewed as an expert was 10,000 hours of experience or 10 years. I suspect in many modern-day professions that’s way below standards.

It’s way too easy to look at the end results and overlook what goes into something. From that 2 minute Olympic performance to the 5 minute medical diagnosis etc. Even from a purely academic standpoint we rarely realize what goes into anything other than a law or medical degree, and even there most people don’t get the late nights and dragging yourself through hell it takes. Most just think about sitting through the Bar Exam and MCAT’s like another SAT and not the prep that goes into it.

Changing Education Paradigms

Educational Paradigms

Another great RSA talk by Sir Ken Robinson animated, it’s well worth the 11 minutes to watch. It’s hardly a secret how poor the education system really is and how many it fails.

I should note the intro video on his website has perhaps one of the greatest quotes I’ve heard in a while: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”.

Paul Graham on College

Paul Graham, whose writing I greatly admire wrote an excellent bit on College recently. Being a college student myself, I found this to be by far the most interesting thing he’s ever written (and there’s quite a bit of competition there). A few things he wrote stick out in my mind:

The way to be good at programming is to work (a) a lot (b) on hard problems. And the way to make yourself work on hard problems is to work on some very engaging project.

Couldn’t agree more, and considering that I’m a geek, this one comes rather naturally. I didn’t need to make an effort to accomplish this one, it just happened for me. I guess that’s a good thing.

In fact, the amount of math you need as a CS major is a lot less than most university departments like to admit. I don’t think you need much more than high school math plus a few concepts from the theory of computation. (You have to know what an n^2 algorithm is if you want to avoid writing them.) Unless you’re planning to write math applications, of course. Robotics, for example, is all math.

Finally someone with credibility admits this one. One of the reasons I avoided the CS major was simply my dislike of math (and more importantly the dislike it has for me). It surprises people that I know how to program without a CS degree. It surprises people even more to know that I royally stink at math (just ask any former math teacher/professor I’ve had). Nobody believes that I can code because of this… well go figure I can.

The worthwhile departments, in my opinion, are math, the hard sciences, engineering, history (especially economic and social history, and the history of science), architecture, and the classics. A survey course in art history may be worthwhile. Modern literature is important, but the way to learn about it is just to read. I don’t know enough about music to say.

I agree with the one omission of a Business degree. It goes very well with a CS degree should you pursue one. Simply for the reason that just about whatever you do with your CS degree will take advantage (if not require) it. Take for example a corporate IT department. To advance, you’ll need a business background. A small company? You can bet a business degree will prove critical to your success. Startup? Hello, that is a business. Having a product is 10% of a successful company. The other 90% of it is a good business to support, continue, sell, market, manage that product. Take a look at the dot com bubble to see why Business ranks. To his credit he does mention economic history, which is also important. No matter what you’ll be involved in business if you want to succeed. Either with a startup, or with a corporation, understanding the business implications of decisions you make are essential to how you’ll be valued as an asset.

Of slightly less interest (at least right now) is the topic of Grad school, which I agree with. Though with a business degree, it has more merit than it likely will with a CS degree.

Overall a great (and recommended) read.