Row of women archers, University of Wisconsin Digital Collections CC BY 2.0

Quick hit: women’s advantage in technology

A few people want us to denounce Adriana Gardella’s interview of Audrey MacLean Why Women Have an Advantage in Technology from on high… but there are some major life crunches around here, let me tell you that.

So, what do you think?

Q. Technology is often described as a field that’s inhospitable to women. Has that been your experience?

Ms. MacLean: When I entered the industry, it was burgeoning. Though being a woman was a novelty, it was growing so fast the opportunity was there, just as the opportunity was there for women during World War II. Tech is a true meritocracy. Either you have the goods or you don’t. There’s less concern with gender, race, color and creed. I really truly believe that, despite data on the dearth of women in technology, tech doesn’t have a barrier up to women. In fact, if anything, women who are technically prepared have an advantage.

Q. What’s that?

Ms. MacLean: In my class, I require the students to form teams to do a four-person project. I don’t assign the teams. I’ve noticed the guys seek the women out as teammates. I think the women are particularly good at bringing the team together and at presenting, which are extremely important skills when developing a product. Female engineers are also sought after. Women make up half the population, and companies want user interfaces that appeal to all buyers. In addition to generally being more collaborative, women have an intuitive sense of usability that leads to better products.

Q. So, what explains the discouraging statistics on women in tech?

Ms. MacLean: If more women prepared themselves academically for tech jobs, they’d get hired. Just like more doctors are women because more women have entered medical school. Women need to take advantage of technology courses at the university level, and not all major in communications or fashion design. It’s not that those things aren’t worthwhile if you like them, but your career opportunities will be greater in I.T., including those in green tech and medical tech. If women don’t get the required technical skills, they won’t be positioned to move into core, general management roles with technology companies. C.E.O.’s don’t come from H.R. They come out of product development and marketing.

22 thoughts on “Quick hit: women’s advantage in technology

  1. the15th

    She actually said one thing that’s pretty insightful, although I don’t think she really understands its importance. Describing why she sees such a high proportion of non-U.S. women in her classes: “[T]here’s testing at every educational level to identify talent” in those countries. A rigid system of standardized testing, while it certainly has its problems, can’t help but identify more talented women than the informal “hacking with the boys after school” network that the U.S. seems to favor. Medicine and law, which MacLean gives as examples of the fields that smart women choose instead of tech, rely on standardized testing, objective expectations, and a clear career paths. In tech, we idolize college dropouts who form startups with their friends and then wonder why so few women seem to make it to the top of the field.

    1. MadGastronomer

      Um, actually, some of those problems you mention with standardized testing absolutely will prevent a lot of people — including women — who would be excellent at tech professions from being identified as such.

    2. Meg

      The rise of SATs certainly did that for gender college admission. Of course, it hasn’t helped disadvantaged men, but in cases where it is a matter of pure bias and possibly social support, rather than a failure of preparation, standardized admissions can help.

      Of course, since women dropping out of the fields is an additional problem, it would appear to me that women avoiding the field in the first place is merely rational.

  2. deborah

    I like it when an article deconstructs itself with a single line so we don’t even really need to point out its flaws:

    Women need to take advantage of technology courses at the university level, and not all major in communications or fashion design.

    “Fashion design.” Not to knock on fashion design as opposed any other particular career, but — wait, that’s exactly what she’s doing.

    And yes, Studies show that women concentrate in lower paid university degrees, but those same studies show that there is a $17,000 difference between the median salary of a woman with an engineering degree and a man with an engineering degree. Oh, look, in computers and mathematics the difference is only $13,000. Well, then. Everything must be all right.

  3. deborah

    I like it when an article deconstructs itself with a single line so we don’t even really need to point out its flaws:

    Women need to take advantage of technology courses at the university level, and not all major in communications or fashion design.

    “Fashion design.” Not to knock on fashion design as opposed any other particular career, but — wait, that’s exactly what she’s doing.

    And yes, Studies show that women concentrate in lower paid university degrees, but those same studies show that there is a $17,000 difference between the median salary of a woman with an engineering degree and a man with an engineering degree. Oh, look, in computers and mathematics the difference is only $13,000. Well, then. Everything must be all right.

    (Accidentally sent this comment through with a bad e-mail address to begin with; moderators, please delete that from the queue! Sorry.)

    1. Beth

      Besides, as a programmer who majored in Costume Design I resemble that remark! ;-)

  4. nonskanse

    “Q. What would get more women to choose careers in technology?

    Ms. MacLean: We need to get girls interested in computing by first grade. By fifth grade, it’s game over. Computing has an image crisis. A boy geek subculture has grown up around gaming that involves violence. It’s not something little girls aspire to. It’s not about lack of educational opportunities for women. Smart girls graduate from high school with straight A’s, go to college, and find themselves surrounded by guys who’ve been hacking for 10 years. So they’re way behind. They get discouraged, and go into law or medicine.”

    This is the relevant paragraph, in my opinion. You can’t blame women for not choosing technology when they’re up against this. I chose CS because I’m a tomboy, but I definitely felt discouraged not having the 10 years of hacking behind me (and I still only choose it as a career, and I’m doing project management/design – I’ll never be as good as the guys who do nothing else for fun, so even I’ve given up a little).

    1. Meg Thornton

      This sort of kicked on the lightbulb in my head: a lot of the time, when women come into programming, or IT in general, we’re coming into it in the same space as kids who are having to learn a foreign language at high school level. I can see a lot of parallels between my learning of German and French (1 year of German in Year 7, 1 year of French in Year 8) in my middle schooling and the way I do struggle with programming. Not because I don’t have the mindset to do it (I can actually slip into hack mode reasonably easily provided there are minimal distractions[1]) but because I just don’t have the option, opportunity or necessity to actually use these skills on a day-to-day basis. I don’t code for fun.

      Part of the reason I don’t code for fun is an interesting one as well – I don’t do it because I don’t like re-inventing the wheel. I see it as a waste of my time – and I’ve been strongly conditioned over the years not to waste my time. Or, indeed, anyone else’s – which is part of the reason I had problems with music practice (the other problem with music practice was the issue of disrupting someone else’s time by disturbing them, which was a strong no-no in our household).

      But since such an important part of coding skill is actually fluency with the process of coding (from go to whoa), and since the opportunities to practice this aren’t necessarily visible in the life experience of a non-hacker, maybe what might help is a bit of practice in identifying opportunities to use the skills learned. It’s all very well for various computer science teachers to say “just practice on something that interests you” – that’s how they learned it, after all, and I can understand them endorsing the same method to their students. But I feel what might help would be lists of small programs (or modules) or similar which would help people learn in their spare time, or maybe pointers to online spaces where such things exist.

      Again, the analogies I can think of are things like learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument – you can learn the basics, but sometimes it’s hard to see the options filling in the gap between the absolute amateur picking out the basics of “Chopsticks” with two fingers on grandma’s piano and the concert pianist up on the stage. I think another thing which might help is also teaching that while these skills can be used to make money, that doesn’t have to be the beginning and the end of it. So while the busker, the pub musician, and the professional accompanist are all part of the “piano player” continuum, so too are people like the mum who plays a few songs for the kid’s playgroup, or the person who volunteers to play hymns for their church, or the volunteer who plays the piano for the sing-along at the old folks home.

      [1] And this is a whole ‘nother area where different gender expectations play into things – for a woman to ask to be left alone to think is still something which is unusual, unexpected, and generally ignored, precisely for these reasons. Guys don’t have this same problem getting private time to think in.

      1. Alan Bell

        That is a really interesting comparison with learning music, I am trying to teach myself the piano a bit, but I struggle to find time to practice because I know it disturbs other people (by which I mean the kids hear it and come and disturb me). It is also hard to motivate myself as I actually don’t want to be “learning the piano” I want to be “playing the piano”, which I can’t yet. I am not finding learning the piano to be something I do for fun, but I am doing it because I suspect that playing the piano will be fun later.
        In terms of finding ideas of smallish and stuff to have fun with code, I would suggest people look at the ideas created by hackday projects like http://rewiredstate.org/projects (or take part in a hackday) or do something that integrates with an interesting website, such as writing a twitter client or a facebook app (neither of these are hard to get started with, creating the next farmville might take a little longer).

    2. Ericka

      I actually got into an argument with a male coder friend of mine that addressed this disparity. I was complaining about the way CompSci was being taught in a geared-towards-professionals masters level intro class that I took last year. I felt that there were a lot of things about the class that disadvantaged anyone who was socialized in the ways in which women are typically socialized.

      I was discussing the problems with a guy I considered a friend (who is definitely intelligent and open-minded) and he disagreed with me vehemently that this was a problem, because “most people don’t learn coding this way, anyway – they learn in high school”. Thereby dismissing my life experience and the experience of every woman I talked to in the class, all of whom were genuinely learning and had little or no experience.

      1. Lukas Blakk

        I’d like to hear that guy’s argument backed up with facts about which high schools he’s talking about. All my anecdotal evidence from asking any high schoolers I’ve met in the past year or so suggest that in fact programming is *not* being taught in high school at all. So unless when he said “in high school” he was referring to all that extra time outside of classes that some people may choose to spend attached to the computer – and boy we can go into the socialization and gender disparity points in that arena – he should really reconsider that argument.

      2. AnotherAnonymous

        To extend this. Do you think that the english departments should be forced to teach introductory word processing before teaching elizabethan litterature?
        Do you think that the medical departments should be forced to teach basic high-school science before moving on to anatomy and so on? Why is comp.sci the only field where the university is supposed to be great equalizer?

        1. deborah

          @AnotherAnonymous, My undergraduate institution, required an introductory writing course of all freshmen. Not all undergraduate programs require an introductory writing course, but I’ve never heard of a United States undergraduate college or university that didn’t offer one. Trust me, the material that is taught in undergraduate introductory classes is incredibly rudimentary and ought to be covered in high schools. (“Word processing” only works as an analogy if the prerequisite for computer science classes were “typing”.)

          The field in which one has expertise always looks like the field which is being taught badly.

    3. hidingmyface

      “You can’t blame women for not choosing technology when they’re up against this. I chose CS because I’m a tomboy, but I definitely felt discouraged not having the 10 years of hacking behind me (and I still only choose it as a career, and I’m doing project management/design – I’ll never be as good as the guys who do nothing else for fun, so even I’ve given up a little).”

      This is true of the elites in every field, weather they be male OR female. Ever talk to a guy who’s trying to work his way into the fashion industry who is up against girls who have been critically analyzing Vogue and Photo magazine covers since they were 8 years old? Or black kids who practiced basket ball every single day of their lives since they were 9 with unhealthy vigor because they saw it as their “way out of the ghetto”?

      Blaming the pursuit of “meritocracy” doesn’t seem to be the answer since the fact of the matter is, the kids who have been hacking for 10 years DO tend to be better at it than the college grads, weather they be male or female. And the fact remains, a lot of the “boys” in the hacking for 10 years club got there because they were rejected by ALL the other social circles, including the ones with girls in them. So they sat in the corner, kept to themselves and got good at what they do. It’s really true of any elite subset IMHO.

      1. Mary Post author

        And the fact remains, a lot of the “boys” in the hacking for 10 years club got there because they were rejected by ALL the other social circles, including the ones with girls in them.

        That level of social isolation in teenage years is by no means limited to boys. This is a really annoying and incredibly false generalisation when it comes up, that girls by virtue of… sheer girlery I guess… have never experienced serious or total social isolation. In general, based on my memories of the (yes, mainly male) people in high school who spent a lot of time on computers and thus learning computer skills:
        (1) they were certainly not in prestigious social circles
        (2) they were not in totally accepting social circles either: their circles also excluded some people or bullied them
        (3) their reaction to girl’s interest was definitely not “hey a girl wants to hang out with us! PLEASE DO! WE CANNOT POSSIBLY SAY NO TO A GIRL!”

        1. deborah

          (2) they were not in totally accepting social circles either: their circles also excluded some people or bullied them
          (3) their reaction to girl’s interest was definitely not “hey a girl wants to hang out with us! PLEASE DO! WE CANNOT POSSIBLY SAY NO TO A GIRL!”

          In my experience, the reaction to a girl’s interest was “Hey a girl wants to hang out with us and code/game/geek out in some other way! ABSOLUTELY NOT UNLESS SHE IS DATING ONE OF US AND EVEN THEN SHE HAS TO SIT IN THE BACKGROUND AND NEVER SPEAK UP!”

          Besides, what @hidingmyface says is not true:

          the kids who have been hacking for 10 years DO tend to be better at it than the college grads

          No, actually, not true. What they are is a clique that has secret codes and guidelines. What they are is people who have been doing some programming, playing with rootkits, whatever, and they exclude others who might be better programmers or might not be by making it clear that if they don’t know the same private jokes, the same computer games, the same TV shows, they are not welcome in the club.

        2. hidingmyface

          “This is a really annoying and incredibly false generalisation when it comes up, that girls by virtue of… sheer girlery I guess… have never experienced serious or total social isolation.”

          100% correct, it was not my intention to say that girls and boys don’t both experience social ejection. I used the word “boys” as an attempt to quote the previous post, let me say that sentence again and see if I can make it a bit more clear.

          —————-

          And the fact remains, a lot of the people in the hacking for 10 years club got there because they were rejected by ALL the other social circles.

          @deborah:
          no argument on the fact that elitism exists in those groups (indeed much of it gendered elitism), but as for them not typically performing better than their more formally trained counter parts, we must agree to disagree :D

          In my experience NOT accepting elitism has made me even more of a geek in some of the geek communities I frequent. The geek circles I’m a part of consider it mandatory to call yourself “good” that you not “rig the game” in order to win by excluding people.

        3. Restructure!

          This is a really annoying and incredibly false generalisation when it comes up, that girls by virtue of… sheer girlery I guess… have never experienced serious or total social isolation.

          I am so annoyed at this stereotype, which is related to the Smurfs post. The idea is that men are individuals and have diverse personalities, but women are basically all the same person and are interchangeable. This is also why many male geeks believe that any woman can get a boyfriend (because all ‘real’ women look like models) ; why some male geeks believe that there must be some kind of ‘formula’ to attract any woman, and it’s all a matter of isolating the variables, since women’s minds all work the same; why Nice Guys (TM) blame all women because their one or two crushes had the audacity to deny them sexual access even after they went through the motions of being nice to them; why some people in software development claim that female developers will be good at GUIs; etc.

        4. Restructure!

          Related to the “all women are the same” stereotype, there is also the greater male variability hypothesis, which claims that men are more diverse than women, because men need to be unique to survive but women don’t need to have personalities because the most salient part of us are our wombs.

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