Women in tech: are we there yet?

Initiatives to entice women into tech careers are becoming more common — but how necessary are they really?

Initiatives to entice women into tech careers are becoming more common — but how necessary are they really?

(Woman aircraft worker, 1942, image by David Bransby, public domain)

Recently, Etsy announced that it would be giving out 10 US$5000 grants to women to attend its 2012 Hacker School in New York.

Predictably, there was an outcry. "Why isn't this being offered to men?" asked many. (Read the comments in the TechCrunch article linked above.) The answer, of course, is that men require no enticement to enter computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields.

"Spluh," I thought to myself. "Of course encouraging more women to enter programming is a good thing. Women are hideously under-represented in tech."

But then I started thinking about it. Why are more women needed in IT? I mean, if women aren't interested, and men are doing a good job, then what's the problem?

And that's the wrong question to ask — because women are interested. Not that you would know it from the statistics; according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, women represented just 25 per cent of the technology workforce (PDF), and data from the US National Center for Education Statistics reveals that just 17.8 per cent of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools were completed by women in 2009.

(I would like to point out here that yes, there is a higher percentage of women attending university than men. However, male attendance numbers are higher than they have ever been, as well; additionally, more men than women complete Master's and Doctorate degrees, and this strong representation of women in tertiary education is not reflected in the workforce.)

There are some more stats to mull over in "The State of Representation of Technical Women in Industry" (PDF).

But let's take a look at some more numbers. According to a 2008 study by the US Center for Work-Life Policy, 52 per cent of women employed by private-sector science and technology companies drop out of their careers.

That's over half. It's a massive number.

I tried to find some figures to compare computer science enrolments to graduations, but came up short — if anyone can point me to that data, I'd be grateful — so it's impossible to say whether women remain in those degrees. I would hazard a guess that there's a higher-than-average drop-out rate, but as I have no data beyond anecdotal to back that up, take it with a grain of salt.

So let's take a look at some of the reasons why women are dropping out of IT careers — or perhaps choosing not to enter them in the first place.

Culture

The tech industry is bedevilled by accusations of sexism. Not without cause; trade shows are a perfect example. At CES this year, the booth babes were out in force. I've talked about this before , and the message it sends to women that the industry feels that our position should be to decorate and entice.

(It didn't help when Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro said the issue was irrelevant, either.)

Then there's this. Not the panel itself; it's the fact that it needs to exist, that women are still so marginalised by the tech industry that a panel discussing woman-specific problems is necessary.

Then there are the workplaces themselves. It can be as blatant as being passed over for a promotion; it can be kitchen jokes; it can be awful harassment from the public. It doesn't happen to every woman, and it doesn't happen in every workplace, but it does happen often enough that the tech industry has an unsavoury reputation for hostility to women.

Pay

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (PDF), the gender gap for professional scientific and tech services is at 26.5 per cent; that is, for every dollar a man earns, a woman takes home 73.5 cents. In the US, it looks a little better; the gap is only 87 per cent for software engineers and 90 per cent for computer programmers, according to the US Census Bureau (PDF).

Now, this data doesn't give any details. Perhaps women are earning less because they're in more junior positions — but doesn't this indicate that there is a lack of women's promotions; that women aren't being hired at more senior levels? On an individual basis, I might believe that some women aren't qualified for some positions, but as epidemically as these statistics suggest, I do not.

There is very much a perception that women cannot be as capable as men. The glass ceiling is alive and well.

Lack of encouragement

From a young age, girls and boys are both taught — by the kinds of toys they're encouraged to enjoy, attitudes in the classroom, clothing, television shows, books — that girls behave one way and boys another. One of these is that computers, maths and science are for boys, and there is a corresponding lack of encouragement for girls to pursue those areas.

Girls' shirts by JC Penny (left) and David & Goliath (right). (Credit: YouBeauty)

There is also a lack of role models. I can name Ada Lovelace, Roberta Williams, Hedy Lamarr, Grete Hermann and Grace Hopper off the top of my head, but I've done some reading — this is information that I had to seek out. It's not freely offered to young people.

This is starting to change, and it's wonderful to see — this is where it begins, and it's an indication that we're on the right path; maybe in 10 years, we'll be there.

But for now?

We still need programs. We still need ways to make the IT industry comfortable for and inclusive of everyone; that's when we can actually discover whether or not women are interested in programming and engineering careers. I've barely scratched the surface here; attitudes to women in tech have a long way to go.

When we have a level playing field, then let's talk about whether the goalposts are fair.

 

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