What is keeping women out of tech? Do you really want to know?

As someone who’s been working in the male-dominated tech industry for nearly a decade, I have experienced my share of frustration at the fact that the gender balance is so poor. I hate the fact that so many Australian girls drop out of maths and sciences at high school, and that enrolments in tech related courses at uni are so low.

I teach web publishing, and I’ve tried hard to instill a ‘startup’ culture in my students. It is an uphill battle – university courses are geared towards getting students to complete coursework, not incubating startups. But I’ve tried, nonetheless. Last semester, I invited Australian web entrepreneurs Duncan Riley and Stephen Mayne to a one night ‘startup camp’ in which students had to pitch their website prototype as though they were pitching to a VC. (No, I couldn’t find a female web entrepreneur in Melbourne to join the panel. That sucked too.)

I’m disappointed that despite so many of my promising students developing awesome web prototypes, so far they don’t seem inclined to take the next step into launching them as commercial ventures. I feel this is a touchy thing to say where my female students will read it, but to be honest,  I’ve come to expect that my best female students, who are often the driving creative forces behind the web projects build in my class, are even less likely than their male counterparts, to take the leap into startup land. But I’m going to keep trying, because that’s why I do what I do. I want to help young people make awesome stuff on the web.

In short, I’m not unaware that there is a gender imbalance in tech, and I’ve put in a fair amount of time to organising events aimed at helping even up the gender balance. I have walked the talk.

So I feel qualified to point out two reasons why The Next Web article asking “What is keeping women out of tech” is just, well, unhelpful. It annoys me that so often discussion of the low representation of women in tech is blamed on women. It kind of makes me think of a guy with terrible body odour and bad breath sitting at a party, wondering why people are avoiding him, and then saying they must all be terrible snobs, it couldn’t be HIS fault. My other pet peeve is when people make huge generalisations about ALL WOMEN.

So I was a bit disheartened when @zee posted a link on Twitter to this article on The Next Web blog, which demonstrates both of those annoying traits.

Don’t get me wrong. I love women and think they are smarter, faster and more organized than men. Unfortunately I don’t see too many women taking advantage of their skills and the opportunities presented to them.

Which might also be written as “Some of my best friends are women, but my goodness you’re all lazy good for nothings aren’t you?” Thanks for making my amazing, accomplished female friends in tech INVISIBLE.

The author also seems to agree with the comedian he quotes who told a bunch of women at a networking event that since they hadn’t brought business cards: ““I guess you all thought that if you show your breasts he will remember you.” How is this appropriate language for a business event? The gender of the speaker is irrelevant. I wouldn’t go to a business event and make a joke to a guy about if he wants me to remember him he should take out his penis. It beggars belief that I should even have to explain this.

I left a comment on the blog, in the hope that the post was a genuine attempt to start a conversation about getting more women in tech.  Here’s the comment I left:

How funny. You criticise women for never DOING anything, except showing up to complain about “getting sexualized in a business context.” But your post basically boils down to complaining that no women come to your conference, without exploring why that might be, and how you might change things to get more women involved. It must be OUR FAULT.

If the purpose of this post was really to try to talk to women about their under representation, and maybe to encourage more women to attend The Next Web, I have to say it’s made me feel discouraged, rather than encouraged. Shame, because I loved @zee’s presentation at Webstock this year, and I had been thinking that the Next Web might be worth making the trip.

[edit: I have a horrible feeling I confused @zee with @zeefrank, who spoke at Webstock this year. Apologies, both.]

Cheers, Sarah

PS – as I said on Twitter, the Geek Feminism blog is full of tech women (many of whom are successful geek women and entrepreneurs, which seems to be what you care about) who take time out of their work and personal lives to try to encourage other women to succeed in tech. That approach is what impresses me, more than hollow complaints.

16 Comments

  1. Donna Benjamin Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    “No, I couldn’t find a female web entrepreneur in Melbourne to join the panel. That sucked too” – u didn’t ask. Been running my own biz in Melb since 1997.

  2. Ben Werdmuller Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:25 am

    That Next Web article is actually a little bit creepy.

    There is, unfortunately, an endemic layer of sexism (and other forms of bigotry) in the technology industry. I wrote about this back in March. I wasn’t aware of the Geek Feminism blog, or would have linked it up; it seems like a great resource.

  3. Boris Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    A guy I know complained to me that he had a discussion with his girlfriend. At one point she said “If you don’t even understand that I’m not even going to bother explaining it to you” and that was the end of the conversation.

    Unfortunately that seems to be the reaction to mosts posts on the web that address this ‘women in technology’ issue. Instead of pitching in on the cause of the problem (if you consider it a problem) they get the “You just don’t get it” reply. That doesn’t really seem to help anybody right?

    Fortunately the original article received a fair bit of constructive criticism too and I enjoyed reading this post too! Whatever your opinion, when the dust settles, what matters is that the subject is discussed.

  4. uberVU - social comments Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by stokely: New blog post: @zee @boris What’s keeping women out of tech? Do you really want to know? http://ow.ly/AZ8y

  5. Lisa Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    Great post. Are there any organizations in Melbourne that are dedicated to encouraging female students to go into tech and/or providing resources for women in tech?

  6. Peter Renshaw (bootload) 's status on Tuesday, 10-Nov-09 22:09:25 UTC - Identi.ca Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    […] http://www.foxforcefive.com/2009/11/what-is-keeping-women-out-of-tech-do-you-really-want-to-know/ a few seconds ago from web […]

  7. Fran Molloy Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 9:53 am

    Maybe there’s a hell of a lot more women in tech than ‘Next Web’ knows about; who says that being “in tech” means being an employee?

    Your battle with the ’employee’ notions that the universities have in order to boost students’ understanding of startups is a classic example of that kind of dinosaur thinking, Sarah!

    No women in tech? Witness the rise and rise of ‘mumpreneurs’ who don’t have formal qualifications, don’t go to industry conferences, don’t self-promote “Look at me, i’m in TECH and I’m a chick, wow!!” but learn on the job, get the work done and get on with their lives.

  8. Tennessee Leeuwenburg Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    If you like, come along to any of the Melbourne Python user group meetings (http://bit.ly/mpug). We’re a friendly bunch and I like to think that the women who attend feel comfortable and welcome. We don’t push any agendas, and just get together regularly to keep in touch. There are usually some presentations too…

    Cheers,
    -Tennessee

  9. Tennessee Leeuwenburg Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    There is also a “Diversity in Python” wiki page for anyone who’s interested: http://wiki.python.org/moin/DiversityInPython.

  10. Dave Bath Said,

    November 11, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    I gave a seminar on IT governance to a range of info architects (and a CIO). The proportion of women in that audience was certainly higher than the proportion of women in the programmer level, and certainly more than female programmers and sysadmins 20-30 years ago.

    That said, what few women were in the game back in the 70s/80s were as competent and geeky as the good male geeks… there were none that had got into the game for the money.

    My gut feel is that when it comes to defining ontology and taxonomy for the semantic web, data labelling, etc, the more subtle linguistic skills required are found in a higher proportion of females than males.

    It would be interesting to see some detailed breakdowns by type of work and seniority, although it would be hard to do a useful breakdown, between the no-BS “Alice from Dilbert” types (who have always been great to work with) and the power-dressing political types (who have made my life miserable more often than not).

  11. What is keeping women out of tech? Do you really want to know? Said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 2:42 am

    […] enter the same tired blogging debate in women in tech. Fran Molloy, a commenter on my blog, put it quite nicely: No women in tech? Witness the rise and rise of ‘mumpreneurs’ who don’t have formal […]

  12. JJ Gorsky Said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    http://fc05.deviantart.com/fs27/f/2008/153/c/7/Girl_Gamers_by_FizTheAncient.png

  13. Janet Horton Said,

    November 12, 2009 @ 9:18 am

    Your post reminded me of CeBIT 2009 in Sydney where at least 3 vendors were still using hired women in short skirts, tight tops to draw traffic to their booths.

    The message that sends does not help the ‘women in IT’ cause one bit.

  14. Amanda Said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    I work in IT. I’m a woman. I’m lucky.

    Not because I “made it so far in a male dominated world” or any other reason like that that makes it sound like I worked any harder than anyone else.

    I made it through determination because I love working in web and in IT (rather than web for marketing or another similar).

    I’m lucky because I work for a manager who believes that it doesn’t matter what lies between your legs, that it’s what you can do with your brains that matters. So because of that, all three techy women in my department are working for him. It’s not that the others discriminate – often the only candidates that are put forward are males.

    And I’ve hit this before.

    Recruiters are as much to blame at times for girls missing out on techy spots as society is for putting girls into non techy roles.

    I know of a manager who put in for two roles. One was a desktop support engineer, the other a project admin role. The project admin role received all females (some with very impressive degrees and experience) from the recruiter and the desktop support engineer was all males.

    Now. You might say that maybe that was all that was provided for each role… not so. On chatting to one of the females for the admin role, as it turned out – she applied for the desktop support role!

    There’s a lot that needs to be changed. Society needs to encourage people (in general) to do what they’re good at – not what is the “done thing”. Feminists who push the hardcore views that turn off some girls from being seen as “tough” need to back off and let girls do what they can do without it becoming a campaign that she’s working in a male dominated area. And finally – we all need to stop looking at the sex of the worker and start looking at the skills and push people towards what they’re good at.

    But that’s just my thoughts… 🙂

  15. Nicole Said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    I had a thoughtful reply all ready, but then I got distracted by Man and his Good Girls and Good Guns. I had a good old laugh and now I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

    Snort. Still funny.

  16. Melinda Said,

    November 14, 2009 @ 5:43 am

    Hey, Bree, that’s what we were saying in 1985. The situation actually seems to have deteriorated somewhat since then. Not really buying it anymore.