I recently had an interesting conversation discussing women in the tech fields. This led from the person I was talking to having previously had a conversation where people were lamenting the (limited) number of women in the tech field and trying to figure out what to do. Out of that conversation came an intriguing comment: Is the reason we do not have more women in tech fields because there is a lack of interest in the type of work it would entail? There are layers of assumptions found in this comment. The biggest one is that there is a natural difference in what men and women want to pursue in life. The other more subtle one is that there are a different set of skills that men and women have. Part of what I want to discuss today is why jumping to these conclusions without recognizing other issues is problematic. I was honestly surprised when I heard that someone made that comment.
The other part that I want to explore is all the areas that we need to look at when discussing a lack of women in a certain field (or men for that matter). One piece is looking at how society might generally view that particular field. This can greatly steer gender in a particular direction and while it is changing it can still be an influencer (especially if parents are questioning you when you break away from the societal norm). The other piece is that there might be a subculture around that particular field. In that subculture are there elements that might be telling someone, for whatever reason, that they are not welcome? Finally, is there something about the teachers or professors that are teaching the courses that make it unfriendly to someone? Now this might not be wide spread, but if there are teachers or professors that show favoritism to a particular gender it can cause a serious problem. There are those who might fight through it, but when it is a professor that can seem to hold your whole future in their hands, how easy is it to really fight against?
At the same time it is important to remember that we are progressing forward because you hear people talking about it.
Women Don’t Want It
In some ways I feel like I should not be surprised to hear this comment. To me it feels a little like a cop out. The basic idea being that I do not see any reason that women are not in the tech field so that must mean they just don’t want to be. It seems to not take into account any other factors that could be making it harder for women to get into the field. Now the one thing I do not know when this is addressed is whether they are talking about women being the programmers, computer scientists, engineers, etc. (which is part of it) or discussing the tech industry in terms of technology companies. Part of the reason I say this is because there looking at a type of job versus a company is very different.
A tech company tends to have more tech type jobs, but there are a lot of other jobs that need to be done in the field that do not need the same level of expertise. If a tech company has an all male board, all male HR staff, all male executives, then that is problematic. There are so many types of jobs available in places like Silicon Valley where you need to understand technology and have a passion for it, but do not need to be a programmer. On the other side looking at basically IT staff and programmers, while there are more men than women I definitely know quite a few women who are very techie and work in a variety of areas. So there are women who obviously do want to be in this field. The question we need to ask is: are there more that want to be in this field who are being discouraged?
A geek feminist wiki has an interesting timeline on their site listing all instances of sexism in the “geek” industries (comic books, video games, technology, computers, etc). This presents a picture that points to some other areas that might be problematic. Before jumping to the idea that in general women do not want to be in the tech field, why don’t we look at places where the field has not always been the most welcoming to women?
We as a society have tended to acknowledge certain jobs being for certain genders. I feel like the tech industry is one of those spaces (whether job specific or companies); it is a space that we have designated as a male space. Thus it seems a curiosity when women want to enter into these spaces. Some of it can be around how others respond to questions about technology or to women in technology. If people are consistently reacting as though you are not the way to deal with a certain area, wouldn’t that influence how you react to that area? If there is an underpinning in society telling us that women are not supposed to be in the tech industry then that is going to influence how we react to questions about technology.
This can really be said about any area, but in particular there are a few areas that are particularly gendered in how we talk about and discuss them. Some of this comes from the society’s ideas of what gender roles people are supposed to have and then the feminine and masculine traits that jobs embody. What is interesting is that we talk a lot about wanting more women in sciences and technology, but we do not have the same conversation about men. At the same time I do think there are some jobs that tend to lean more female and men get mocked for doing those jobs. The solution is that we need to talk about how ridiculous it is to assign any gender to task as long as it can be accomplished. Accepting that men and women can do any job they have the skills for.
So this leads into a further discussion where the societal push for certain areas to be male or female dominated can lead to particular subcultures. When there has been a “boys will be boys” culture that has predominated in a certain area, I think it can be hard for women to break into those spaces. If as a woman you are a programmer, but what you keep running into is guys making sexist applications outside of the work space I feel like it could be difficult to want to work with them. If you felt like your coworkers did not value you as a person would you want to work with them? If you went to a tech convention and were treated as an idiot simply because of your gender how much harder would it be to progress?
Now I do not know about the tech industry too much and it is important to remember that any of these statements are not everyone. At the same time they are prevalent enough that we continue to hear various stories. The stories that I hear the most about are in the video game industry because that is what I am engaged with the most. I have read stories about women being harassed, women reviewers not actually allowed to test drive a game, talked down to, etc. This is not everyone’s experience, but it does not paint a pretty picture for that world. If the tech industry has similar problems it could be a contributing factor to the lack of women in the industry.
Teachers / Professors
This all leads then into the people who are teaching the next generation. If they are allowing themselves to be influenced by “gender norms” (whatever that is really supposed to mean) then they could unintentionally or intentionally be playing favorites. If a professor does not think women have the analytical capability to do programming then don’t you think they are going to treat the women more harshly? I have heard about women taking science classes and feeling that the professor favored the guys; it is a sad, but true statement. These are the people shaping our young people’s future in some ways. Now there is always teaching yourself, but in today’s world a degree is still a big part of how you get a job. So you have to go with the system that is already in place and if that system is biased against you then it will probably push you slightly off your original course.
This is no way to say that all teachers and / or professors are like this, but the societal pressures and subcultures can influence their thought processes. We need to make sure we recognize how our outside stimuli might be influencing our reactions and interactions. Otherwise a teacher could unknowingly turn someone away who could have flourished.
I know that I have painted a probably ugly picture and I really should get some more statistical data because a lot of times we make sweeping statements that I do not know where they come from. I wanted to address though the problem with just declaring that women do not want to be in the tech industry. It could very well be that women tend to lean away from that as a profession, but we should still ask the question why that is. It is getting better because we hear people speaking out when they notice indecency occurring and trying to distance themselves from the less savory elements. More and more people are speaking out and speaking up.
At the same time I wonder if some of this is a myth that we have created. We say there is a lack of women in the tech industry, but is it the tech industry or a more widespread problem? I hear about the lack of female CEO’s in technology, but isn’t that a problem everywhere? Or the lack of female board members, but again isn’t that a more pervasive problem? I do not know if there is an easy solution, but we cannot just leave the response to the question of women in the tech industry to a 140 character remark.