I always hesitate entering the debate about women in tech, because the issue, as it is often interpreted, leaves me indifferent.
Before you start throwing stones, let me explain my background.
I grew up reciting a famous Soviet nursery rhyme that casually mentioned mothers working as ‘pilots, chefs, engineers, train drivers, and police officers’ and asserting they all were ‘important and useful’.* In my extended family, there were aunts and cousins working as chemical engineers, metallurgists, and physicists, and none of it was thought to be unusual. Sure, some professions were considered ‘not suitable for women’, but those entailed hard physical labour or danger.
When my home country Latvia became independent, it happily embraced the Scandinavian approach. We have had women presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs of major companies. One example: our Minister of Finance, a mother of four, has an MBA, speaks six languages, and is a competitive chess player who once defeated the women’s world champion. She is unique, but not unusual.
Thus, my attitude to the whole issue is aptly summarised in the following quote, by an airBaltic female pilot:
I have never felt that I have to prove myself more, just because I am a woman. The only thing that matters is professionalism, not gender. This is how it should be.
I now work in tech where the issue is impossible to ignore.
Hardly a day passes without an article, a debate, or a conversation about ‘why there are so few women in tech?’ and ‘why the tech industry is so awful to women’. Initiatives abound to attract more women to technical fields: suggestions to place job offers on ‘women-only’ job boards, proposals to set hiring and investment quotas, and committees to advocate for ‘gender neutral writing’.
Yet, despite these efforts, the percentage of women in tech remains low: in France, where I live, it is 33%, according to Syntec numérique, a professional body for digital companies, and only 9% in senior roles.
What’s worse, in the last three years, the situation deteriorated, as women are leaving the tech industry. The reason? Time and again, women repeat that they are “treated unfairly, underpaid, less likely to be fast-tracked than their male colleagues, and unable to advance”. In other words, they cite limited career opportunities.
If this is indeed the main reason that women are leaving tech, why then are the majority of ‘women in tech’ initiatives focused on something completely different, namely: ‘building self-confidence’, ‘eliminating unconscious bias’, and ‘changing mindset’?
Furthermore, it appears that men and women are given radically different advice as to how advance their careers, as was highlighted in this eye-opening TED talk ‘Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get . Whereas men are encouraged to perfect their business acumen and make sure they hit and exceed targets, women are routinely told to improve their communication, leadership, and assertiveness skills.
There is nothing wrong per se in learning how to communicate and lead effectively, but I doubt that these skills are lacking exclusively for women.
One of the phrases I hear most often about women in French tech is: Les femmes n’osent pas. Women don’t dare.
“Self-censorship and the impostor syndrome have an impact on all levels: recruitment, promotion, salaries … The problem of women is confidence. They need to be told that it is a muscle and can be strengthened.”
Women don’t dare. Women don’t dare to choose a technical field, to speak up, to ask for promotion, to negotiate, to lead — you name it.
I don’t buy the idea that ‘women don’t dare’.
Is this really the case that women chronically suffer from low self-confidence, self-censorship, and the so-called imposter syndrome?
I have never believed that ‘low self-confidence’ was a good explanation for the lack of women in any given profession. I used to work in predominantly masculine environments, often being the only woman on a project. Of course, I had to learn to stand up for myself, but I always attributed my mistakes to my junior status, poor communication, or wrong constellations — never to my fair gender.
Over the winter holidays, I thought about all of my female acquaintances, family and friends, academics, and professional colleagues. I could not apply the ‘women don’t dare’ allegation to any of them.
These women, located all over the world, aged 18 to 80, working in a variety of fields, have moved countries, changed professions, developed demanding careers, and overcome numerous challenges. Certainly, all of them had moments of doubt and weakness, but this is the human condition.
I would be interested to see any solid data that backs the claim that ‘women don’t dare’. It would be enlightening to understand the origins of this little phrase, and the reason why some women, especially those who ‘have succeeded’, keep repeating it.
“Women don’t dare, they limit themselves. I am transparent with them about their confidence, and having a woman CEO helps them to be more ambitious.”
Yet, the phrase ‘women don’t dare’, far from being innocuous, is extremely harmful. If we keep saying ‘women do not dare’, ‘women don’t ask’, ‘women can’t do it’, we are enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a well researched phenomenon that shows how expectations, both our own and those of other people, affect our performance.
High expectations lead to improved performance. If teachers treat students as gifted, students learn better. If managers believe their subordinates are able and competent, the subordinates perform better.
Conversely, if we keep repeating that women don’t dare, they indeed will react accordingly and begin to doubt their abilities. Is this the outcome we want to achieve?
One of the reasons I dislike the ‘diversity committees’ and ‘women advancement groups’ is their focus on trivial issues.
Claiming ‘women don’t dare’ is counterproductive, yet it is so easy. Talking about ‘confidence boosting’ is easy. Using ‘s/he’ instead of ‘he’ is easy. Putting more pictures of women on the company website is easy. Changing the number of women in the executive team from 0 to even 1 turns out to be difficult.
If we really want to solve the women in tech issue, we should stop repeating that ‘women cannot do’, ‘les femmes n’osent pas’, and instead put all our forces to solve the biggest challenge: to make sure women’s career opportunities in tech are equal to those of men.
How we do this? I will propose some ideas in a future article.
- * A passage from this nursery rhyme, translated into English.
- Well, what next? — replied one kid.
- Mother-pilot — what of it?
For example, Beatrice -
Mother works in the police!
We have got a boy right here,
Mothers even fly to space!