Women in tech/women near tech

I subscribe to a lot of blogs related in some way to women and technology, and skim through them at least daily in my feed reader. Lately I’ve noticed that there’s some vital mismatch in terminology going on. And I’m not the only one.

Image credit: Dori Smith

Image credit: Dori Smith

Dori Smith posted about it a couple of months ago with the above image, and Sarah Mei’s comment (which I only just read today, when I revisited the post) really struck me:

… as a programmer myself, I remember a time not so long ago when “women in tech” meant “technical women” – programmers, chip designers, system administrators…etc.

With the mass popularization of tech, starting in the 90s, “women in tech” started to mean “women who work in the technology industry,” which is a very different (and much broader) group.

In the process, the issues faced by technical women, which are quite different than the issues faced by women in other parts of the industry, have fallen off the radar. And that’s sad, because we do need more women actually *doing* tech.

At OSCON, I gave my keynote on women in open source first thing in the morning. As people filed in and took their seats, this video — “Her Code: Engendering Change in Silicon Valley” — was playing on the big screens:

In the video, those women who have technical backgrounds aren’t identified as techies: Leah Culver talks about open source, but is identified as the founder of Pownce, not as a programmer, although she is one. Marissa Mayer (who has a degree in computer science) says she thinks of herself as a geek at Google, but the job title the film shows on screen is VP. All the rest of the women profiled are company founders, venture capitalists, and the like.

We absolutely need more women founding tech companies, investing in tech companies, in management at tech companies, and all of that. But… there really is something missing when you treat those women as if they represent all “women in tech”. Where are the women who actually, every day, build technology? Not just use it. Build it.

We see this time and time again. Look at this post about Geek-ternships (a new trend? really?) on the Girls in Tech blog. The only one that mentions any technical skillset suggests HTML and Excel proficiency would be helpful, but aren’t required. All the contributors to that blog are in marketing, except one who is a designer. Dori also pointed out the Technically Women blog, and HuffPo’s Cracking the Boys Club: 10 Pioneers in Tech and Web 2.0.

“Women in tech” articles and blogs like those make me feel invisible. Not cool.

Here are some “… In Tech” groups that are actually for women *IN* tech, not just near it:

  • Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology: We are women technologists. We use technology to connect our communities. We create technology because it is who we are — intelligent, creative and driven. We lead with compassion and a belief in inclusion. We develop competitive products and find solutions to problems that impact our lives, our nation, our world. Together, through the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI), we are inventing a better future.
  • Women In Technology Project: Our mission is to build and strengthen the education to workforce pipeline by encouraging girls, women and other underrepresented groups into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.
  • NCWIT: We believe that inspiring more women to choose careers in IT isn’t about parity; it’s a compelling issue of innovation, competitiveness, and workforce sustainability. In a global economy, gender diversity in IT means a larger and more competitive workforce; in a world dependent on innovation, it means the ability to design technology that is as broad and creative as the people it serves.
  • Girls in Technology: The mission of Girls in Technology is to support academic and community programs that engage school-age girls in technology and computer-related learning. Currently, GIT furthers its mission by supporting summer camps and after school computer clubs for girls that provide technology/math/science enrichment and promote leadership skills.

(And, for the record, none of their websites are pink, and the only one with “girls” in the name is for school-aged children. Just sayin’.)

38 thoughts on “Women in tech/women near tech

  1. Liz Henry

    I noticed that post of Dori’s too. I’m happy for “women in tech” to extend as a term over everyone working in the industry, and don’t want to get into a geekier-than-thou contest over what counts and what doesn’t as really techy.

    However, it is useful for me to have some way to find other women who write code or can read it and talk about it. So, when we extend a term to be more inclusive, we sometimes lose the ability to find people like ourselves — or to be seen and found ourselves by others.

    1. Mary

      I have a feeling there’s a little bit of mutual feelings of being ignored going on. Non-coder/builder women feel like they lose the “geekier-than-thou” cred contests and that they don’t fit into their more immediate work environment and are interlopers, and coder/builder women find themselves at events where they feel like they’re back in the land of mainstream norms that many are in tech partly to avoid: how to maintain your femininity while being the boss, it’s just a job and you can go home and do family stuff just like other women, don’t worry you don’t have to be into maths or sci-fi or gross geek guy stuff.

      It all ties into super-complicated gender presentation stuff. We get stuck coming or going: more mainstream feminine, or not.

      1. jadelennox

        I don’t know. Nothing against women in tech fields (we should totally be supporting them, of course). But at the same time, thinking of them as “tech women” has allowed so many places I’ve worked to say “no, we don;t have to fix our hiring pracitices, because we’re 50% female!” That is, a 100% male development team, and women as middle management, QA, tech writing, site design, and the like. Which are important fields which need to be supported! But which are not fields where women need to find for representation in the same we way do as coders and sysadmins.

        When upper management hired the less qualified male developer when there was a more qualified female candidate last month, and I complained and was told, “no, it’s a 50% female team!” explaining that there were no female developers didn’t cut it. We really do need to talk about technology jobs as different from jobs in technology.

      2. Skud Post author

        @jadelennox: *nodnod* … I’ve also seen this pattern. I’m *part* of this pattern, at the moment! (Currently working in community mgt, though I still code part-time to support that work.) But more commonly, I’ve been the only woman who’s coding in a company that has 10%-20% women on account of the ones in marketing, project mgt, etc.

    2. Skud Post author

      Except that I don’t feel like it’s being extended to be more inclusive. I don’t feel like GIT (to give today’s example) actually wants to include me or people like me. If people were saying “Hey, we’re all women in tech, let’s do stuff together” that would be one thing, but what I see going on is those people saying “Hi! We *are* the women in tech! And we’re out to show that we’re not geeks!”

      Which leads me to wonder… once I get over my current annoyance and take a few deep breaths and maybe a stiff drink or two… what can we (broadly speaking) do to bridge the gap? (Do we want to?) I thought the Women2.0 mixer at OSCON was a good idea, for example, though I think the messaging could have been stronger around *why* the geeks might want to hang with the suits, and vice versa.

    3. Marisa

      Great comment Liz. I often think along those same lines. I haven’t been winning the “geekier-than-thou” contest since the day when my little sister created a CSS webpage for her favorite band in middle school. Inclusion is always better than exclusion, and when we start defining what is a “technical woman” I’ll probably have to quit the club and go home.

    4. pfctdayelise

      Liz,

      [I] don’t want to get into a geekier-than-thou contest over what counts and what doesn’t as really techy

      – yeah. This is what I notice in discussion eg. disputing the “25% of people in IT are women” stat – “oh, but they’re probably just designers…” “oh but they’re probably not sysadmins…” “oh but they’re probably not kernel developers…” and on and on.

      Having said that, I had the confused pleasure of attending an event for women in IT & telecommunications, which had a panel with no such women.

      As usual, I agree with Mary’s reasoned comments…I suspect it is a bit of a no-win situation.

      1. pfctdayelise

        er, and it would be pertinent to note that those doing the disputing in said discussions were men IIRC. but yeah. It does feel like you have to prove your geek cred a lot.

  2. Anna Ravenscroft

    Thank you for writing this. One of the places I checked out when we first moved here to SillyCon Valley was WITI – Women in Tech Intl. I went to a couple of events but stopped going because I was surrounded by marketers and recruiters and there were no geeks, no programmers or sysadmins or other techies, or even women who hack in their free time (regardless of their “official job title”).

    1. Skud Post author

      You’re in the Bay Area? *takes notes* One of these days we’re gonna have to have a meetup of our own.

    2. Terri

      Yeah, I remember when I first looked for women in tech groups in my area, the option was webgrrls, which wasn’t really my cup of tea (and involved entirely too many people whining about bilingualism requirements, but that’s another story…). The resulting experience is what drove me to linuxchix, where at least there were techy women who were into the same things I was.

  3. Dori

    If there’s a Bay Area get-together of some kind, count me in too, please?

    Part of my initial post was a reaction to what I’ve been seeing: there seems to be a consensus building that one way to solve the “not enough women in tech” problem is to simply expand the definition of “in tech.” That is, where a man in, say, marketing might not be considered technical, a woman with an equivalent job is, which makes everyone’s numbers look better. And that’s what matters, right?

    Sidenote #1: If anyone points out the discrepancy, you can accuse them of being anti-women.

    Sidenote #2: If anyone points out the lack of the “Women in Tech” panelists that actually create tech, , you can accuse them of being anti-women.

    Sidenote #3: It’s much easier to come up with panelists for “Women in Tech” sessions this way.

    Sidenote #4: Is it just me, or do a lot of the “let’s get more girls into tech” discussions end up with a consensus of: (1) girls are too stupid to understand what a great field IT is and that therefore we have to trick them into it; or (2) girls are too stupid to understand what a great field IT is, so if we make it mean something so fuzzy that no matter what they do, they can be considered “in tech,” then they’ll want to be in tech; or (3) girls are too stupid to notice that none of the women encouraging them to go into tech themselves create tech, and therefore will do what they say and not what they do.

    Sidenote #4a: What happens if we start from the position that teenage girls are smart, and then examine our other assumptions to see if they’re still valid?

    Sidenote #5: Sadly, the example of Charlotte being “in tech” for simply using a cellphone was not exaggeration for effect—but I wish it was. Sigh.

    Anyhow, thanks for linking to my post!

  4. betsyl

    i’m always curious– what about women in support? i am going to go to work tomorrow and spend the day putting out fires and reading xsl translator stuff until my eyes cross, and sending email to our dev team explaining how they maybe kinda forgot to fix this one bug in the new release but i don’t code or design chips and i don’t (currently) do sysadmin work, although i have in the past.

    i do, however, have that difficult to control urge to ‘splain things in short, clear, anglosaxon words whenever i am asked, again, if i am a project manager or a techwriter. (no one has asked me if i am the receptionist in years, thank goodness.)

  5. Mary Baum

    Frankly, as a woman near tech – I’m a branding/marketing type – I absolutely think there needs to be a geekier-than-thou conversation, comparison, whatever you want to call it. In no way do I think that the CSS I manage to throw together to make a web site look pretty is in any way comparable to the technologies that make the web actually do things. Further, for the sake of all the issues in this very discussion, and to keep those (mostly) guys honest about the numbers, it’s incumbent on us women near tech to make it very clear exactly who the real geeks are.
    If I understand you clearly, code is a feminist issue.
    FWIW, though, I do fix my own hardware . . . (she said, nervously anticipating an upcoming fan replacement in a MacBook Pro)

    1. gchick

      I love “Code is a feminist issue”, and plan to adopt it as my new favorite phrase.

  6. Louis Gray

    Great post and good insight (which is why I just subscribed). There are some great female tech geeks who really get into the code. Is there a gender imbalance? Absolutely. But even with that, the public faces of tech could be more geeky and less as you describe today.

    One of my favorite girl tech geeks is Jenna Billotta of Google Reader. She’s sharp and has a big impact on one of the sites I use as much as any other. http://twitter.com/jenna

  7. Layla

    Great discussion!!

    Well, I’m one of those girls who were top of the class in Maths as a kid, throughout high school.. (I was soo embarassed about it and didn’t dare to tell anyone..) I do consider myself a geek & was always considered to be geeky by my classmates etc too.. It’s just I went on to study different things (modern languages and not Maths, to great misery of my Math teacher & ex principal)
    Part of me wanted to go study Physics & Chinese :) & part of me wanted to learn more about computers too, but our high school really had a lame programme with just half a year or so of ‘computer/programming’ (where everyone just copied from cheat sheets.. so..? hmm..?)
    I always wanted engineering toys too, as a kid, but no one remembered to buy them (I was a girl!) So I partly do understand what those women in the video are saying..

    Of course I TOTALLY admire all of you who can actually CODE and such!! Or do real tech!
    Imo there’s no need for a ‘geekier than thou’ contest, I do totally get the wish for hanging out with people sharing the same struggles etc. Maybe indeed terminology just needs some clarification…

    Technology is just soo all-pervasive these days..
    It reminds me of how my binders or folders get overstuffed and then I need to specify stuff further and just get new binders or dividers to keep track..

    Sorry for the long post, I do totally enjoy this blog!! (& was afraid I might be considered underqualified to read it? ;) hmm.. )

  8. Jenett

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, so thanks for starting the discussion. I’ve got a hard time of it because I’m a librarian with a strong interest in technology – but far more from the ‘how do we use this stuff better’ than in directly producing the code. But I’ve done tech support in the past, and coding is on the list of things I want to learn/do more of (though, realistically, not going to happen in at least the next year) and I tend to find more of interest talking to people who produce code, even if I can’t always follow the details due to lack of specific background.

    One of the things I wish we had a better term to sort with is people who play with the technology, who explore (and, if coders, expand) its limits and possibilities. There seems to be a meaningful gap in the conversations I can have with other people who play and test and try things out – and with people who use the technology, but who don’t push its limits. Yet, there’s no good term for that in English, it seems.

    1. Leigh Honeywell

      Does “power users” fit?

      There’s a book called “Crossing the Chasm” which talks about technology adoption; the folks you describe probably also fit into the “innovators” / “early adopters” categorization.

      -Leigh

      1. Skud Post author

        You know, speaking for myself, I’m not really all that interested in dividing people up into carefully delineated and labelled groups. I feel like there’s a spectrum of involvement with technology, or perhaps a big Venn diagram, and each of us falls into a slightly different place.

        My concern is that this supposed “broadening” of the term “women in tech” isn’t actually broader — it’s just shifted sideways. I don’t think I’d be feeling anywhere near so strongly about it if these conference panels, meetups, blogs, etc. actually had *some* representation from the geekier side.

      2. Jenett

        Librarian background does tend to incline one towards wanting clear terminology – but let me see if I can explain that better:

        I want better terms not to separate people out, as much as to help people who have stuff in common find each other more easily.

        I’ve found in my own professional life that I live in a weird sort of in-between. I’m more tech-interested than a lot of librarians, but I don’t do it every day, and I don’t do nuts-and-bolts coding or sysadminning, or other things. So when I go to conferences, I’m in a sort of no-man’s land: often at the very upper edge of the ‘how do we use this stuff’ power user side, without a lot of other people to talk to about the issues of living in that space. (And yet, every time we change network admins at work, I spend a month or three demonstrating that if they give me admin access to the server – which ends up saving them time in the end – I will not in fact break anything.)

        Fortunately, a bunch of local folks have started a library technology conference, which I adored last year, and that helped a lot, but it’s hard to find other people in other spaces (online fora, blogs, etc.) because there’s no consistent way to identify them (no common terminology, etc.)

        A conversation with my colleagues brought this home a few weeks ago: we were talking about the fact that we *play* with what we’re doing. We’re all constantly trying out new software, new online tools, new ways to do what we’re doing. I tend to refer to it as geeking around, but that’s not very precise. And I’m wondering if something a hair more precise might actually be useful. It might not be, of course. (And I recognise that my little eddy of the tech spectrum is its own weird microcosm anyway: education usually is.)

    2. Mackenzie

      One of the things I wish we had a better term to sort with is people who play with the technology, who explore (and, if coders, expand) its limits and possibilities.

      Hacker?

  9. Mary Jane Kelly

    I contribute to the Girls In Tech blog, and I’m a computer security consultant. I’ve found Girls In Tech to be very inclusive, and that’s why I’m a member. I’m the Managing Director for the Seattle chapter, and I try very hard to include women from all areas and strata of tech. I think it’s important to connect entrepreneurs with creators because that’s how cool things are made.

    I really liked your talk at OSCON, and I wish we had gotten to meet in person. If you’re going to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, I’ll be volunteering and would love to meet.

    1. Skud Post author

      I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet at OSCON. Can’t make it to Grace Hopper, I’m afraid :-/ I mostly only do conferences where I get to talk about my dayjob, or that are in the Bay Area.

      I’m glad you’ve found Girls In Tech to be inclusive. Why do you think it is that that message of inclusivity doesn’t come across on their website? Is there anything we (geek women) can do to help? For instance, do you think the Girls In Tech bloggers would like to be put in touch with some technical women to interview/profile/whatever?

  10. moose

    I don’t code. But I am a sysadmin.

    One of the things I see a lot, as someone of biologically female gender, is either:
    – You don’t code, so you are useless.
    or
    – We’re ok with recruiting women, we have YOU!

    I need more advil.

  11. Avendya

    I have never quite figured out if I am a woman in tech or a woman near tech. I don’t work in IT, but I do (or, at least, have as an intern & will when I graduate) code for a living. That living is in scientific research. I’m not a sysadmin nor do I run my own Linux box; I do work on grid computers running Scientific Linux, but running Linux all the time is not my cup of tea. A computer science group I used to belong to considered me less technical than they were for this reason (they were into game design; I was into Monte Carlo simulations for the LHC). This blog has never specified what it takes to be a geek (for which I thank you, by the way), but I have rather picked up the feeling that I am less of a geek because I code for scientific projects rather than straight-up CS applications.

    So, although I very much agree that women in tech & women near tech are different things, I wish that my use of tech counted as “real” tech. (Note: you guys have not be exclusionary at all. However, many groups-for-women-in-technology don’t seem to have a place for me & other women like me.)

    1. Dorothea Salo

      This may connect up with what Jenett was saying above (with which I identify, as I am also in the weird in-between library-tech space). Code as a means to an end rather than code as an end in itself… is sometimes devalued in software communities.

      I suspect without proof that we might be a lot closer to gender parity in code-as-means-to-end than in code-gratia-codis. (Ugh. Sorry for the ugly neologism.) Folks like Jenett and me aren’t exactly common, but we’re not completely uncommon either. We may tend to be less visible, partly because code-as-means-to-end is often (I say self-deprecatingly) really ugly code, partly because it’s rarely public code, partly because we don’t think of ourselves as developers. (Me? I am a librarian. Sure, I sling Python and XSLT. Still a librarian.)

      1. Avendya

        In my code-for-science field (physics), we’re not any closer to parity than sysadmins. Academics physics departments are doing well when the gender ratio is 10:1. I celebrated when my department was 3:1. That’s… not terribly close to gender parity, and respectfully, I am not sure that library science and physics are that similar in the way they treat women.

        (At my university, the CS department is considered much less problematic for female students than the physics department.)

      2. Dorothea Salo

        Leigh, I have been writing XML as strings. I am deeply ashamed of this, but it WORKS.

        Avendya, yes, there are absolutely double-whammy (triple? quadruple?) fields, where coding is only one facet of the marginalization of women.

        Librarianship is… weird about computers. Deeply weird. I won’t bore you with the whole weird saga; suffice to say that it’s an environment where often, one’s colleagues both male and female marginalize one for being technologically-inclined.

    2. spz

      Avendya:

      heh, you’re a physics geek, and thus by definition as geeky as it gets and stays polite :-P

  12. Pam

    We have a problem in the UK with organisers and policy-makers not realising that events concerning “women in engineering” may attract very few actual women engineers. Holding something on a weekday means that people working in the industry have to decide whether this event is worth taking a day off work. They can’t do that very often. It is all too easy for event organisers to fail to pick up that the people who are sent from engineering firms are usually HR people and not engineers. There may be other people who work in office posts concerning policy, but who are not and usually never have been working engineers.

    Yes, some HR people do really understand the issues, and some event organisers have a background in the sector, and some of the office types try to really understand people in their area, but we need the voices of real current women engineers to be heard. The Women’s Engineering Society tries to collect up information and send representatives who can speak about real experiences.

  13. Deb

    For some situations, I think it is advantageous to be broad about “women in tech” because there are lots of places where support is needed at the not-writing-code-from-scratch level; women who are doing partly technical work that is being discounted precisely because women are doing it, male administrative staff being given more opportunities to learn new technical skills than their female counterparts and of course, (sadly) the garden variety sexism in the workplace exacerbated by a whopping male majority.

    That doesn’t mean that at other times there is a need to be clear who you are looking for and what’s expected. Groups like Systers, Linux Chix, PHP Women, etc. make it pretty clear who should be there and what will be talked about.

    I was going to include a long anecdote about my noisy punk band getting put onto female folk rock nights (disastrous, btw) but instead let me just say I think sometimes the “big tent” support of your peers based primarily on gender is great and that other times you really need the support of a much more specific group of peers.

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