Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Women in technology

When I stop and look around at work, I notice something that bothers me. Why is the ratio of women to men so low in technology? I've read quite a few posts from women who have lamented the locker room mentality of many technology shops and having been guilty of similar (often cringeworthy) behavior, I can certainly understand why this could be a significant detractor...but it seems like this can't be the sole reason. Only being intimately familiar with the North American technology workplace, I also wonder if this is true globally. I seem to recall on recent visit to a Chinese shop there being a higher number of women in the workplace.

I recall a conversation with my daughter from last night that immediately revealed my own bias. Her car was having problems with the cooling system and I asked her if she had fixed it yet (my son and I both took a look and just shrugged). After her reply in the affirmative, I asked if she took it to a mechanic...and she stated "No, I fixed it myself". Shame on me for first asking if she asked her boyfriend how to fix it (please, feminists, no bricks through my window) and shame on me again for staring at her slackjawed at her response to the negative. Frankly I was amazed, confused, proud, and also quite a bit troubled by my own response.

As she went on to explain how she texted all her male friends and realized that #1 the ones that knew anything about cars were unresponsive and #2 the rest of them were utterly clueless about repairing vehicles. After this realization, she stated she went out, popped the hood, found the problem (a cooling system hose was leaking), removed it, replaced it, and moved on sans male intervention or assistance. I would have completely expected this from one of my sons, but even now, I'm positively glowing with pride at her self sufficiency. Why?

To give context, the woman in question is 20 and just graduated from a four year institution with her Bachelor's degree last month, so she's smart. The same person held down a job for the almost the entirety of her college career, and at one point actually had two jobs (with a full class load). In high school, she was a middle distance runner and also played in the band, which imposed a brutal schedule that often had her busy from 6am until past 6pm... after which should would then do her homework. She's fastidious, watching her do homework and research was almost painful for me because ... well, I'm not an awesome student and just never really understood how she could do it. Moreover, she just signed up for another class over the summer to get another endorsement for her teaching certificate (her quote "Yay, now I can take college classes for FUN").

All that having been said it seems like I should have been completely nonplussed that she went and fixed what she ultimately stated was an obvious and easy problem with her vehicle. I like to think of myself as an enlightened male of the modern age, but there is a significant sexist bias in my thought that I need to work on. Moreover, I think this bias pervades our culture so much that we're shortchanging ourselves. Having worked with a number of rockstar quality technologists who happened to be female, I wonder how many there might be that are shying away for whatever reason. Having to constantly find new talent and knowing how difficult it is to find quality technologists, I lament the fact that we seem to be underutilizing 50% of the potential talent. Being the father of two daughters transitioning into adulthood, now more than ever I'm going to challenge myself personally to make sure I keep any unconscious bias at bay. Please do the same...


Jeff said...

How can I add to that? Amen, brother. And, congratulations on raising a girl who can fix her own vehicular difficulties.

Meg said...

A number of people have looked at the participation of women world-wide. There are a few countries, such as Malaysia, where there are more women than men in programming though China isn't one of them.

It is a matter of culture and the available options: in those countries with the highest ratio the work is considered "feminized", since it is desk work and involves typing. In those countries with the lowest ratios, largely Scandinavian countries, women have the most other options for profitable careers that don't involve interacting with the global programming culture.