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Some myths about women in technology

When it comes to ‘women in technology’ and the reasons why there aren’t enough of us, I keep seeing the same old ‘arguments’.

This is my attempt to dispel some of the myths that surface on blogs, in comments and in real life about why there aren’t enough women in tech and why exactly it’s a problem.

“Women just aren’t interested”

Makes it so convenient doesn’t it? Ah well – women just don’t like it – nothing we can do there. What a shame.

I’m afraid you don’t get out of it that easily! Many other countries have much more equal numbers of women in technology. Many of the computer programmers in Bletchley Park were women. Evidence suggests that there is no biological reason for women to be less interested, and it is easy to see the many social and cultural influences that hinder the development of women’s interest in technology in our society.

Despite all children having a natural curiosity about the world, when so many girls toys focus on fashion/make-up/babies and boys toys focus on building/science/engineering, is it any wonder that girls grow up thinking engineering is not for them?

Girls are constantly steered towards ‘feminine’ jobs, and are made to feel weird if they show an interest in science subjects. There is a misconception as to what engineering is (I equated it to mechanic when I was at school), and jobs in technology are seen as geeky and unsociable – even though they often involve creative thinking, problem solving and team work. The way technology and engineering can be used to have a positive impact on the world is not emphasised enough.

Claiming that ‘women just aren’t interested’ is lazy. It allows people to ignore the real, actionable problems which if addressed, might allow women to discover how fascinating science and technology can really be. Despite the issues, there are still plenty of examples of women who are incredibly passionate about technology and engineering – go to any ‘women in engineering’ event and you will see – it’s just currently they are vastly outnumbered by men. Perhaps, if women were given the chance to discover their interests and made to feel more welcome in the industry, there might be many more.

Even if it were true that women were less interested in engineering, would it be ok to just hand-wave it away? What if women ‘just weren’t interested’ in teaching or healthcare – would we be so willing to leave it at that? I think we would start looking at why they weren’t interested and whether there was anything we could do about it. With the tech industry poised to be one of the most important in modern times, it would be stupid to leave women behind.

“Women are naturally worse at maths/logic/science/whatever”

It has been shown time and time again that there are no innate differences in ability between boys and girls. When differences do surface, it can be clearly attributed to cultural cues. It’s a vicious circle – there’s a prevalent myth that girls are worse at these subjects, which means teachers tend to rate girls abilities as lower even when they perform equally well in tests. Girls then internalise these perceptions and truly begin to believe they aren’t good at those subjects. This in turn is self-fulfilling, and they will start under-performing.

To give girls a fair chance we need to stop undermining them. To me, confidence is probably the single most important issue in why there are not enough women in tech. Confidence is related to testosterone so girls are automatically likely to be at a disadvantage in this area compared to their male peers. Girls are unfairly assumed to be worse at science, knocking their confidence further. If they do manage to pursue a career in tech, they are constantly faced with surprise which makes them doubt themselves. They see their male colleagues getting promoted and on more pay, which makes them question their worth. At each of these stages it might be tempting to give up. It’s not just about encouraging them into the industry in the first place, it’s about retaining the ones that make it.

Thankfully, this survey shows female scientists seem to have faith in their own abilities and understand that any issues are due to external factors (although I do wonder if this is self-selecting – only the women who actually became scientists have been surveyed – what about all those that could have been amazing scientists but abandoned it through lack of confidence?) But the worrying bit is how many of the male scientists seemed to believe there was some truth in the myths about women being ‘naturally worse’ at technical subjects. In an industry dominated by men, where a woman’s boss, colleagues and clients could be holding these biases, it is yet another barrier to overcome.

“It’s a meritocracy so there’s no special need to be encouraging more women”

So why should you care?

Long ago, I realised that not everyone was as nice as me and that to some people, promoting equality and social justice is not sufficient motivation. I also understand that value judgements are subjective so any argument that relies on moral assumptions is fragile. So here’s why – even if you don’t care about any of those things – you should still care about getting more women in tech.

It’s been shown that diversity in board rooms can encourage innovation and lead to a more successful business. More fundamentally than this, it stands to reason that if you’re essentially writing off half the population, your pool of potential talent is massively reduced. We have enough trouble producing sufficiently qualified technical people as it is – if you’re not willing to optimise your resources, you’re going to fall behind. In fact, it’s been argued that women are central to saving the UK tech industry, which is lagging behind other countries that have less stigma towards women working in tech.

On top of this, it turns out that in general men tend to prefer products designed by men, and women prefer those designed by women. If a business wants to take advantage of the massive female tech market, they’d be wise to seek adequate female representation on their team.

“Women are too emotional to make good business decisions”

It also really annoys me that our society seems to set up a false dichotomy of rational vs emotional. They are not mutually exclusive – having emotional intelligence is arguably an important part of rational decision-making.

“It’s a problem for women to address”

A lot of men I know and work with are keen on increasing the number of women in tech, but I think they sometimes feel a little excluded from the effort. When I invite them to these kind of events, they often look confused and ask ‘err – am I allowed to come?’ Yes! We need you!!

After all – men make up the majority of the industry (particularly the senior jobs) and with this they have power to effect a change. We need men to see that women are just as capable as they are, and that ignoring this is detrimental. We need men to promote this to other men – some of whom (as I’ve pointed out) may have misconceptions about women’s abilities. I’d like to see more events celebrating women in tech (e.g. talks by women in the industry) that are actively aimed at men as well as women.

“I’m not part of the problem”

Sadly, probably not. Everyone has biases. I know I do – I was once momentarily disconcerted when I was on a plane and a female voice introduced herself as the pilot. I hated myself for this and knew it was completely irrational. But I’m not alone – this study revealed how both men and women consistently rated women as less capable than men even though the only thing that differed in the applications was the gender of the name.

Denying we have these biases isn’t going to get us anywhere. They tend to arise from social and cultural cues and we don’t even notice them developing – it’s outside of our control. But what we can do is try and root them out and acknowledge them. Maybe then we can minimise their effect on our behaviour, or at least make a conscious effort not to pass them on to others.

Addressing biases is hard. It’s really hard. It’s hard because when faced with a decision you don’t know whether you’re making a fair assessment, or if you’re being influenced by biases, or even if you’re going too far the other way and overcompensating. But if we want anything to change, and if we want to become better, more enlightened people, we have to try!

This is a slightly edited version of a post originally at http://microchicks.co.uk/2012/11/19/some-myths-about-women-in-technology/

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Productivity, systems, and optimization. Effective altruism, science, futurism, tech, econ, and rationality.

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