Why We Don’t Need More Women In Tech… Yet

Written pre-Arrington by a month or more. In fact, researching this is what inspired me to go back to school for computer science.

In the past decade, I have noted a push toward the integration of women into the specific field of web-related technology, the aim of which is gender parity, a 50/50 percentage split between men and women in the industry.

I’ve heard well-meaning tirades on the reasons behind this push, and I’ve heard silly and flippant arguments, as well — atomic-age axioms that typically center around heteronormative expectations of feminine looks and dating/mating potential.

Today, I want to tell you that this push needs to stop immediately. While conducted with the best of intentions, it is damaging to technology, to the economy of our industry and most certainly to women themselves.

Most of all, this push is potentially damaging to the very future of gender and technology because it attempts to correct a widely recognized imbalance without examining how the imbalance got to be there in the first place.

THE PINK GHETTOIZATION OF WEB-RELATED WORK

Clearly, women are underrepresented in tech. So are African Americans and several other ethnic minorities. So are disabled and differently-abled people. So are gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered folk and all others who operate under the “queer” banner. But today, we’ll focus on women.

Discrimination in the hiring process has been an issue for all these groups for decades; however, for women in technology professions, is discrimination the real reason their numbers are so few?

Although women were well-represented early in computer programming’s history, women are today less likely to be found in the ranks of programmers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, product designers, web designers, all-purpose hackers, sysadmins, network security experts and just about any other profession that requires the slightest bit of scientific, mathematical and technical expertise. We make up roughly 30% of the computer and information science workforce.

However, in the valance professions of advertising, marketing, public relations and communications, human resources, office management and assistance, women abound. When these positions are found under the umbrella of a tech company, the pink-collar job is transformed, and the woman in the position is said to be “in tech.”

This dubiously accurate nomenclature of “women in tech” places the entry-level PR girl at a startup in the same monolithic group as 50-year-old engineer at IBM. This is unfair to the women who do real technology work; it’s doubly unfair to women as a gender, as it smashes the “tech” label onto anything related to the Internet. Does having 50 male engineers and 50 PR women at tech companies mean we’ve acheived gender equality? Hardly, but it does make it more difficult to correct the true imbalance: There are not enough women doing real technology work.

MAKING WOMEN TECHNOLOGISTS

The way to get more women in tech is not to call on non-technical women to get jobs at tech companies; rather, we should be hiring, mentoring and promoting more women technologists. The uncomfortable question is often posed: Are there enough competent women engineers/programmers in existence to acheive gender parity at technology companies?

I have a more uncomfortable answer: There are not.

Why not? Because we’re not graduating women and men in equal numbers from computer science programs at colleges and universities. [IMPORTANT: Interested parties should read this full run-down of stats on women in computer science degree programs.]

In 1984, around 37% of computer science program graduates were women. Astonishingly, in 2005, that number had decreased to just 22%.

Granted, a college degree isn’t the be-all, end-all of a gloriously skilled hacker, as Facebook’s founders can attest. But even when you consider enrollment in these courses, women just aren’t present in numbers anywhere near those of their male counterparts. Of prospective college students who took the SAT in 2001 and intended to major in computer science, just 20% were girls; in 2006, that number had plummeted to 12%.

Ironically, teenage girls are using computers and the Internet just as much as teenage males. But they’re apparently not interested in the technology per se, only as a magical, mysterious means to an end. And Internet use does not a technologist make. Heavy Internet users, even the earliest of adopters, don’t generally end up making applications themselves and contributing to the larger corpus of technological work; they are simply consumers.

So, assuming that even the most meager education in a subject signifies one’s interest and grants one some kind of competence, and assuming further that a successfully completed education acts as a booster pack for professional acumen, we can postulate that there will not be good reason to push for more women in tech until more women are graduating with computer science degrees. And all signs point to a decline in female CompSci graduates.

How, then, do we get more women to pursue computer science degrees? For if we really do want gender parity as much as we say we do, this must be a collective goal… right?

A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD ENGINEER

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

This dictum comes from Jesuit philosophy, but it applies to almost every other kind of sociological stratification known to humankind, not just Catholicism. Our personalities, beliefs, expectations of ourselves and others, and our future behaviors are formed quite early in life; as a society, we typically condition children to be many things from a very young age.

If we give the hypothetical Jesuit the hypothetical child, the expectation is that the child will not depart from his upbringing: that of a moral Catholic.

We could just as easily say today, “Give me a child until she is seven, and I will give you the female engineer.” But we don’t say that; we as a culture don’t encourage little girls in their most formative years to be engineers. We encourage them to be mothers, caretakers, cooks, designers, aestheticians, seamstresses, communicators, hairdressers, and everything but engineers — or generals, mechanics, and anything else that, harking back to the beginning of this essay, requires the slightest bit of scientific, mathematical or technological skill.

Before you retort with your personal vote of support for female education, I’d ask you to take a stroll around a toy store and imagine you can’t read. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve been taught a simple system of color-coding: Pink and purple is for girls, and blue, green and gray are for boys.

You will immediately notice the drastic segregation — the gendered version of the Jim Crow-era South. There are entire aisles of pink, and other aisles devoted to dark blues and greens. Imagine that you are only “allowed” in the pink and purple areas of the store, and examine the toys you find there.

The vast majority of playthings for little girls encourage them to think about nurturing others and caring for themselves — including, to a large extent, their appearances. These aren’t inherently negative lessons to learn, except for the fact that these lessons exclude others that deal with problem-solving, strategy, physics… you know, the kinds of things you learn from playing with Lego, K’nex, Stratego and other male gender-coded games and toys.

CREATING A GENDER-BALANCED WORKFORCE TAKES TIME

We are misguided to demand more women in tech when there simply isn’t an adequate supply of competent technological professionals to support gender parity. Women in tech begins with little girls playing with science- and math-related toys, and it takes much longer than just a few months or a few years to undo the sociological mores of a few millenia.

So, to all the special interest groups and fine individuals with fine intentions, I ask you one favor: Please stop pushing for more women in tech, and find a young girl to mentor instead. When she is young, give her “boy toys” and video games. If she wants one, get her a laptop instead of jewelry for her birthday. Tell her not to worry about flirting or her hair. Send her to a computer science camp or space camp. Encourage her to take advanced maths and sciences in school and to enter a computer science degree program.

The same applies to women as entrepreneurs, as VCs, as athletes, as part of any traditionally male-dominated profession: Drop the pop feminism and have the guts to get to the core of the problem. We must stop treating girls as gender-crippled, pink-collar versions of ourselves and start treating them like the facsinated young minds that they are, minds that will grip onto whatever we bring them in their most formative stages.

If we do these things consistently over several generations, perhaps there will be enough of these math- and science-minded young girls to become the workforce of women in tech that we cannot be today.

Image courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution.

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