Last week, Fox Business ran a
story about women in technology, with host Stuart Varney musing that there
might be “something about the female brain that is a deterrent from
getting women on board with tech,” and that keeps companies from putting
women in positions of authority in technology companies.
Wow. The notion as stated on Fox
is appalling at face value, but the imbalance is certainly real, and not just
at the executive level; women are scarce at all levels in technology, it seems.
When I entered the field,
unthinkable years ago, I was a junior programmer in a group of 13 that
contained five women. Today, more than two decades later, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics tells us that the percentage of women in a typical US IT shop has
fallen below 25 percent.
In colleges around the country,
the story is even worse: back in my day, more than a third of all computer
science degrees were awarded to women; today, it’s a disappointing 12 percent.
And, ironically, among high school students, girls are more likely to be
generally computer literate than boys (although boys are more likely,
three-to-two, to have actually done computer programming).
Clearly, things are going in the
What’s going on here? Why are
women steering clear of technology careers?
Several theories are out there,
trying to explain the imbalance. A study of Canadian high school students has
shown that few young women are attracted to the field to begin with, citing a
perceived life of isolation, which the media fuels – the dreaded geek factor.
Fewer than five percent of young women arriving on undergraduate campuses do so
with intent to pursue a computer science degree.
And once they’ve arrived on
campus, there does indeed appear to be a sexist force at work: a 2006 study
published by MIT Press asserts that undergraduate classroom environments tend
to weed women out by emphasizing competition over cooperation, and that
undergraduate laboratory environments, where teamwork is often taught, tend not
to be inclusive of women.
Once in the workplace, women
report 10 percent lower perceived receptivity to their input than their
non-technical peers; they also report less perceived advocacy for their skills.
It’s not hard to see why little girls, dreaming of what they want to grow up to
be, might seldom picture themselves arriving in a .NET developer’s cubicle.
What are we missing out on, given
this state of affairs? Let’s set aside the obvious, that we’re truncating
nearly half the intellectual and creative potential we could be accessing, and
note that one of the nagging deficits in the IT workplace today is diverse
communications skills, in which women in general exceed men; or that turnover
has become outrageously expensive, with the cost of replacing an IT
professional now often exceeding the amount of a year’s salary, and the note
that women tend to move from job to job less frequently than men.
The big one here, however, is that
the Information Age is burgeoning all around us, and we aren’t just a service
industry; we are shaping the world to come. The very forum in which you are
reading these words right now has been a game-changer, not just in the
performance of business tasks, but every aspect of our daily lives, social,
political, and economic. The more input we have into the shape of things to
come, the better off we all will be, as our technological future unfolds. To
even partially exclude half of the human input we might introduce into the
evolution of technology, company by company, in the coming years seems not only
wasteful but foolish.
How we can move more firmly in the
direction of rectifying this imbalance is something for an upcoming discussion.