Mind the Gap: Women in Tech

From the Desk of a Software Engineer

More women are now, more than ever before, both bosses and mothers, breadwinners and bakers, but the path to careers in technology continues to be the road less travelled. It’s not for lack of incentive; companies are hungry for technical skills and salaries for these positions are at an all time high. However, the number of women in Computer Science and other STEM fields remains low despite the opportunities they offer. Even with all eyes focused on this issue, there’s a lot of confusion and disagreement about what’s going on, how it should be handled, and what “it” is.

Most studies on this topic show that the issue isn’t women themselves — women want to break into tech — but rather the sexist culture, predominantly male environments, and biased practices. This would explain why only 26% of those graduating with CS degrees and 12% of those graduating with Engineering degrees are women. And, to everyone’s embarrassment, these numbers aren’t changing for the better. Has the conversation about women in tech become stale and directionless? We’ve pointed the finger at men, women, educators, and management but with everyone to blame, and no one willing to take responsibility, the witch hunt continues.

Despite the staggering amount of research, surveys, and speculation on the topic, upon closer inspection the gender gap quickly starts to feel like a one-dimensional issue in which bro culture is the main problem and women are forced to either suck it up or get out. In this oversimplified scenario, men are the problem and the tech industry is at fault for allowing them to get away with bad behavior for far too long. While a valid argument — after all, there’s always an uncurbed asshole or two who likes to ruin it for everyone — it’s not the entire picture, yet all other perspectives and theories on the topic are buried in an avalanche of generalizations in which women are the victims and the patriarchy, their oppressor.

The trouble with these generalizations is two-fold. First, it paints unrealistic expectations of what the average women in tech will face, and what she must put up with to succeed.

This is just a taste of the “women in tech” mantra that often dominates the conversation on the gender gap. Not to say that women shouldn’t be aware of these situations and the pressures they may face, but women should absolutely NOT feel doomed by them. Which leads to the second problem with generalizations: the self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is an overwhelming dichotomy at large; on the one hand, women are told that they are just as capable, intelligent and valuable as the men in their field; and in another light they constitute an overlooked, unheard, unrepresented group with little power to change the status quo. With so much attention focused on the issues encountered by women in technology, it’s easy for a woman to become too acutely aware of how she fits into these narrow definitions. Is she a rockstar or a victim? Clearly, we need to rethink how we’re setting expectations. A successful woman in any other field might think, ‘I’m smart, I’m capable, I’m good at what I do therefore I’m successful.’ However, women in tech often attribute their success to chance (‘I was one of the lucky ones’) because they believe their own story is an outlier or anomaly. Similarly, women in tech who aren’t finding success or fulfillment are too quick to turn to these generalizations as a means of understanding their unhappiness. Unfortunately, as a society, we’ve given the impression that failure and hardship are the norm for any woman trying to build her career in the tech world.

But surely all of this wasn’t born out of a vacuum. The horror stories are real; sexual harassment and favoritism happen. These are problems that women should worry about regardless of the industry. And if we’re going to “fix” tech, it goes without saying that the first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that a problem exists. I have no doubt that the goal of publicizing issues faced by women in technology is to raise awareness and to promote positive change. But the result of what should be a very good thing has been the rise of an “us vs. them” mentality in which gender becomes the only distinction that matters. Instead of looking at problems in tech culture on an individual basis, everything has been divided into issues of gender which condemns us to think in oversimplified stereotypes. For example: Women need more encouragement. Women don’t feel that they belong. Women care more about careers that do social good. Women need other women to guide the way.

Just as the problem has been defined in terms of gender, the solutions are similarly guided.

Courtesy of SMBC

Literature on fixing the gender gap is quick to jump to generalized, and sometimes downright sexist, conclusions about what women need to be successful. I’ve seen it argued time and time again that the decor of tech companies and computer labs are to blame. How can women feel comfortable as engineers and programmers if their work spaces are too nerdy or masculine? Certainly this is working to counter the male stereotypes many associate with tech, but the solution to putting more women in STEM is not going to be as simple as free makeup and pink office curtains. However, the more disturbing realization is that some people believe it is. They believe that if we can at least make tech look more like a place where women are welcome then we’d have more of them walking through the door. However, falling back on gender stereotypes is exactly the behavior we’re seeking to avoid. Feminizing technical roles is only the other side of the sexism coin. It is for this reason that “Women in ___” conferences, events, and gatherings are so worrisome to me. They continue to promote this mindset of “us vs. them” rather than allowing women to integrate and create organic culture change from within. This movement is in danger of becoming the aggressive counterbalance to bro culture, creating a similarly conformist and alienating culture of feminism in the typical fashion of, “either you’re with us, or against us.”

Courtesy of Kate Beaton — Enjoy the full comic here

The other side effect of this gender divide is the popular belief that women have the same shared experiences. After all, we’re all the same, right? Of course, in reality, the definition of “women in tech” is a diverse one. It extends beyond programmers and engineers, encompassing every woman who works for a tech company in some capacity. The difficulty then becomes trying to solve a problem which should be, at the minimum, two separate conversations. The first, is the presence of non-technical, professional women working in tech culture environments. The second is the scarcity of women in technical roles. The distinction is important because each group exhibits its own set of struggles and concerns. While the realities of technical and non-technical women are overlapping, I don’t believe it’s fair for one individual to speak for a group purely on the idea that gender is the ultimate binding factor.

As a software engineer, I’ve personally realized that discussions about “women in tech” may not reflect the opinions and experiences of female software engineers at all. I’ve sat down with other women in tech and felt unable to relate. I’ve encountered hostility from other women outside of tech for not being “pro-woman” enough. I’ve also been asked many times how I handle discrimination and pressure from my male peers, based on the assumption that I must put up with it regularly. My experiences are a result of this false impression that all women must face the same challenges, regardless of their position in the industry and other factors which, while potentially messy to consider (i.e. they don’t fit neatly into surveys), shouldn’t be ignored. Simply put, approaching “the gap” gender-first has killed productive discussion in favor of convenience.

I’m afraid that in our quest for gender equality we’ve become too superficial and lost our way in a rabbit chase to fix appearances rather than focusing on what counts: nurturing genuine interest in technology, promoting new and exciting advances in the field, and encouraging collaboration in pursuit of these goals. The gender gap in tech isn’t so much the issue, as it is the symptom of other problems. The numbers are not solely an indication of sexism or injustices against women, but also of more complex societal issues revolving around personal responsibility. The solution ultimately comes down to individuals to see past gender and to seek to improve the tech industry overall, and not just for women. This means holding individuals responsible for their actions or, sometimes, their inaction. Speaking up, not against men or women, but against unfairness in the workplace. Doing away with events designed to be exclusive to any gender. Being a mentor, not just for women, but for everyone. Not shaming a person based on how they do or don’t fit a stereotype. And most of all, not seeking validation from a ratio as a method of measuring the “health” of the tech industry.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a lot harder than buying pink office curtains. Or organizing conferences. Or conducting a survey. Or hiring more women.

If we’re going to “fix” tech we need to be responsible adults instead of continuing down our current path of assigning blame, causing unnecessary panic and fear, and focusing on bandage solutions.

If I could encourage any takeaways from this article for an aspiring person in tech, it would be that if you love it, then do it. Technology has no gender and no bias — the compiler will treat my code exactly the same as a man’s code. The tubes of the internet will not discriminate between packets based on the identity of the user behind the keyboard. Nothing can stop you from learning and hacking and building wonderful things. We all carry the responsibility of making tech a great field to work in, since, after all, a group is only a good as the quality of its individuals. Perhaps it’s time we started taking more interest in improving tech culture one person at time instead of focusing so much on gender diversity. I believe that we will eventually see our 50/50, but let’s go about it the right way.