Why There Aren’t More Women (and Men) in Tech

The other day I was looking at tech job postings.

I can’t help myself. I do this the way other people click on cat videos. I’m a web developer and even though I’m not looking for a job, it’s like there’s a plate of cookies on the sill and I want to eat them all. So many companies, so many delicious opportunities.

Except for one thing. And it’s a big one thing: they want to own my life.

Here’s an “ideal candidate” bullet point in a recent job posting I was gobbling up the other night: “A love of building software, demonstrated through interesting side projects, open source contributions, or other involvement in the tech community.” That one was for a position as an Android engineer. Here’s the parallel bullet point for the user experience (UX) position: “Involvement in the craft beyond your day job. You teach, do side projects, write a blog, or participate in Meetups, conferences, hackathons, etc.”

The accountant position advertised at that same company requires knowledge of accounting principles and Microsoft Excel, just as the other two positions require specific technical expertise. Yet there’s no bullet point for the accountant position that mentions working on accounting projects at home, writing an accounting blog, or contributing to the Journal of Accountancy.

Apparently it’s okay for accountants to be homebrewing beer in their off hours, or painting landscapes or taking their kids to the park. Tech workers on the other hand, are expected to devote their free time to… more tech work. And if they don’t, the implication is they’re not the kind of wunderkinds who belong in the industry.

I mean, there are seventeen year olds making apps that sell for millions. There are thirteen year olds building Braille machines and getting funded by Intel. What have you done lately?

It’s those types of stories that make us all anxious in the tech world, workers and companies alike.

If we haven’t hit our stride by twenty-five, we’re already behind. The high-tech world is always changing, always innovating. How to keep up?

One of the ways, as a tech worker, is to always be learning. In fact, this is a job requirement for those of us in tech. Every few years, there’s another design tool or development framework or programming language we need to pick up and be able to use. So perhaps one of the ways companies sift for this trait is by asking for proof of an insatiable thirst for tech knowledge outside of our current jobs, as evidenced by writing about tech, participating in outside projects or creating our own products.

But there’s an fundamental error to this approach. Let’s go back to that accountant.

If an accountant is required to learn a new tool or process for accomplishing her work, she’s sent to training. Simple as that. She’s not expected to prove her ability to learn — it’s assumed she’ll be able to learn that new skill. Why? Because she went through the learning process in becoming an accountant. The fact that she’s capable of her job proves she was capable of learning the skills necessary to perform it.

But tech workers and accountants are two entirely different animals, right? The tech worker is a rare breed, especially the programmer. The programmer is depicted as a guy who codes eighteen hours a day, drinks gallons of coffee or Red Bull (when he’s not guzzling beer and eating pizza), and, and… And nothing. There is nothing else to his life. He’s pasty and wired and brilliant.

Except there are plenty of tech workers who are excellent at their jobs but don’t fit this “brogrammer” stereotype.

They prefer to work at their jobs then spend their personal time on activities other than tech. They ski and bike and go out to dinner with friends. Some are in their twenties; others are in their thirties, forties and fifties. I personally know quite a few of these people, more than those who code all night long and participate in hackathons. So then why do tech companies persist in looking for the stereotype?

Partly, it’s our own fault as techies. The brogrammer stereotype (and this filters down through UX and visual designers as well) lends a certain cache to the profession. When people find out I’m a programmer, I can tell it makes them think I’m tech-smart or science-smart, whatever that means. The truth of the matter is anyone can learn to program. You don’t need to be a mathematician (a common misperception). You need to be a problem solver and a logical thinker. That’s it.

Yet the stereotype persists and I worry that it turns many potentially amazing tech workers away from the industry. I worry that the young kids who see this stereotype perpetuated in the media will never consider a job in tech because they either don’t think they’re “smart enough” or they don’t want to be sitting in front of a computer eighteen hours a day (unless at least eight of those hours consist of watching videos or playing games).

I especially worry that this stereotype is one of the reasons women are represented in such low numbers as tech workers.

Many young women I talk to about working in tech don’t live the “brogrammer” lifestyle and don’t want to. Many aren’t working on side projects, writing a tech blog or participating in hackathons, and don’t want to. When they see such requirements in job listings, it leads them to believe the profession isn’t a good fit for them, or so they’ve told me.

Does this mean they wouldn’t be good tech workers? My experience in the tech world — working with more people who don’t participate in these activities than do — would be a resounding “no.” There are a lot of different personal and professional characteristics that make someone a good worker, and they’re pretty much the same whether you work in tech or not: being self-motivated, adaptable, disciplined, a good team player, a hard worker. Working on side projects might indicate you’re this type of person, or it might indicate that you’ll be more focused on your side project than on your job.

But let’s put all of this aside. What are tech companies really looking for when they add the “brogrammer” bullet point to their list of requirements?

I think they’re looking not only for commitment to the field but also for creativity. Because creativity and innovation go hand in hand, and innovation is one key to continued success for tech companies.

There are many theories concerning creativity. One of my favorites comes from Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. His “first law of creativity” is this:

The act of imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the products of creativity are constructed. The richer a person’s experience, the richer is the material his imagination has access to. (Vygotsky, “Imagination and creativity in childhood.” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology Vol. 42 No. 1, p. 14.)

If this is true, and I’ve found it to be so in my own life and work, then all the diverse activities we participate in — from growing organic broccoli to playing guitar — wind together and bubble and foment to create the ideas coursing through our minds. The more diverse our lives, the more interesting and innovative our ideas. So living a life outside of tech can only help to make our life inside it more creative.

Brogrammer culture? Not the path to innovation.

So let’s stop asking tech workers to dedicate their whole lives to tech. It’s not only unrealistic, it’s totally off-putting. I myself have what some might consider a very brogrammery lifestyle: I work in tech, write about it, occasionally work on side projects, attend conferences and meetups. I read tech magazines, watch tech vidcasts and listen to podcasts about tech while I’m running on the treadmill.

Yet when I see a job posting requiring me to participate in outside-of-work tech activities, it makes me cringe. Why? Because I do most of these things for fun, not to advance my career, the same as I read lots of fiction and tap dance and travel. It’s the difference between playing tennis for fun on a sunny afternoon and playing in a tournament for USTA rating. The for-fun play isn’t focused in the same way. It’s not competitive, not public. It’s personal.

If you want to know how I spend my time outside of work, ask me in the interview.

And if we want more people to go into tech, men and women alike, let’s change the public perception of the tech worker from the brogrammer to a professional who isn’t expected to spend nights and weekends staring at code, wireframes or pixels.

Pizza optional.