Women in High Tech

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There are remarkably few women in the computer industry, especially on the technical ladder.  The higher the technical rank, the lower the percentage of women.

I’ve been in the industry a long time, and things do not seem to be changing.  The ratios seem to be about the same across companies in the industry, which leads me to wonder:

  1. Why are there so few women in the industry?
  2. Does it matter?
  3. What could be done to change it?

Before I tackle these questions, it’s important to note that generalizations about gender are only statistical.  There are lots of exceptions.  That being said, I’ll try to conjecture about why there are so few women in the industry.

Here are some of my theories:

  • Women think they won’t be good at it; perhaps because they imagine engineers fitting the stereotype of having built a computer out of spare parts as children, and they didn’t do that.
  • Women want a career that they think of as overtly altruistic, such as teaching, social work, or medicine.
  • Women get discouraged by aggressive people in the industry.
  • Subconscious bias by hiring managers; there are some people who have trouble seeing a “true engineer” unless the candidate reminds them of a younger version of themselves – harder to do for women when there are more male hiring managers out there.
  • Social compatibility; women often want a team to be friends. One woman confided in me that the people in her department (all men other than her) bonded as a working team by playing sports like football.  She was petite and her colleagues avoided really playing with her because of the (probably realistic) fear that she’d get hurt. When she tried to suggest less physical activities, like a potluck dinner, no one was interested.

Why does it matter if there are very few women?

  • The best kind of team is one that has a variety of skills, so that team members can complement each other. Also, so that they look at problems from different angles.
  • The industry often has trouble finding enough good people. Doubling the pool of candidates by including both genders will surely help.
  • It could be that with so few women, a vicious cycle is in play; women feel out of place, hiring managers recruit their friends from college, etc. More women in the industry could break this cycle.

So, what can we do?

Well, it would certainly be counter-productive to randomly hire and promote less qualified women, so we need to be creative about finding, recruiting, and retaining those who are qualified.

Some things that I think can help:

  • There needs to be “adult supervision” in the workplace, watching out for relentlessly self-promoting bullies – of any gender. Those people often do well for themselves, but are toxic to the productivity of those around them.  And, in my experience, these people are not good technically.  Truly competent people don’t need to act that way, and they don’t.
  • Hiring managers need to understand that the healthiest team has diverse members; not necessarily body shape and skin tone, but different ways of looking at the world.
  • In the school setting, recruiters at K-12 schools should let all students know how great the technology field is and how many different areas it covers. If you want to do something altruistic, maybe you choose to design prosthetic limbs.  Or artistic, you could design web pages or do movie special effects.  Communication? Giving presentations, teaching, and writing documentation are often parts of technical careers. There are many opportunities.

I’ve learned about some of the ways that EMC is involved in communities around the world supporting the development of women in technology.

Women in Tech Forum in Chengdu, China

We support a Women in Tech Forum in China.  Each year, roughly 300 young women at Chinese universities gather together to learn more about the importance of technology and how there is a place for them in the field.

We sponsor robotics competitions for youth and employees serve as mentors.  Check it out: VEX Robotics in Ireland

In California, EMC supports an engineering competition called the Tech Challenge, which is an annual design challenge that introduces and reinforces the engineering design process with a hands-on project aimed at solving a real-world problem, such as urban planning and construction in an earthquake zone.  In fact, we also partner with Citizen Schools to encourage underrepresented groups to participate in the event.

I don’t think there is any magic solution here. We all (women and men) have to remain committed, working together on these and other steps that people might think of, to gradually change for the better.

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5 thoughts on “Women in High Tech

  1. I started as a programmer in the airline industry, working for BA, Galileo, etc., and the ratio of women to men programmers was about 50/50. The team environment was much more collaborative and the parties were better; programming was fun.

    In those days we were focused on the solution, how could computers help people; now we seem to be focused on technologies, how can to make a cleverer widget. Galileo did not necessarily hire people who had technology degrees, but people who had an aptitude for logic, and that skill is evenly distributed between women and men.

    One of the trainee programmers they hired came from the legal profession, had virtually no computer experience, but turned out to be one of the best system programmers they ever trained, and… she was a woman.

    If you always look for programmers from the same mold, it is not surprising they tend to look the same. Maybe we should care less about what technologies a candidate knows, and more about whether they have a logical and creative mind.

    • Thanks for that comment David. As you so eloquently said \”Galileo did not necessarily hire people who had technology degrees, but people who had an aptitude for logic\”. If we expand our notion of what a qualified applicant is, there are so many fields (law, biology, psychology) that have a large number of people that are not only very smart and able to think logically, but that would add a lot of dimensions of thought and expertise. Plus, there are a much higher percentage of women in those fields.

      Ideally, we can start a community of EMC\’ers to come up with innovative ideas such as what you proposed.

  2. I think another problem is that Women don\’t seem to be interested in the field. I have no idea why, but I remember when I was in College (North Carolina State University), there were very few females in the engineering school or the math department. I mention the Math Department because many a great programmer that I know of actually have mathematics degrees, not engineering degrees. Most of the females I knew in the Math department wanted to be Math teachers.

    Most of the really intelligent females I met while in college were in the bio fields or the School of Business. Biochemistry and biological engineering were popular with intelligent females as well as business management and finance. None seemed interested in computers or software at all.

    So, in my humble opinion, something needs to be done to get females interested in pursuing software careers at an earlier date. By the time a Woman hits the work force, it is probably too late.

  3. I\’m just one person but I have a story relevant to Steve\’s comment. I\’m a woman who was really good at math and programming in college, and was originally a math major with a CS minor. I didn\’t want to be a teacher, but this was what my adviser suggested. Also, I felt like I had nothing in common with the students who were in my math and programming classes, and I didn\’t want to end up working with people like them for the rest of my life. So I switched to economics and ended up with a BA in econ with math and CS minors. I went into business and over time kept ending up doing programming jobs in whatever industry I was in. I didn\’t/couldn\’t get jobs as a programmer, I always took a job as something else and then did the programming work, but I was good at it and I liked it. Finally as an adult I got a master\’s in CS. All my classmates were young techie guys again, but this time I wasn\’t expecting any social scene with them so it didn\’t matter to me. My point is you may see many more females pursuing tech degrees if there were more women in tech. A conundrum, I know.

  4. I teach computer science at The Evergreen State College. Last spring I taught \”Computer Applications for the Fiber Arts\” with and indigenous weaver. The class was balanced in terms of gender. Even after that, only a few of the women enrolled in more focused computer science classes this year. I am still looking for more ways to attract women to this field and especially cyber security.

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