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Why aren't there more women in tech? Wrong question

The lack of women in technology is disturbing. To fix it, we need to re-engineer the industry's male-dominated culture.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has been a leader in raising awareness of the struggles women in tech face.

"Why aren't there more women in tech?"

It's a question I hear just about every week, especially when controversy erupts around the issue. However, it's not the question we should be asking if we really want to solve this systemic problem.

Several recent incidents has brought the lack of women in tech issue back into the spotlight:

  1. A Boston-based hackathon, the Boston API Jam, offered women serving beer as one of its "perks". The ensuing controversy resulted in sponsors pulling out of the hackathon and an apology from its organizers.

  2. A heated Twitter exchange between Basho's Shanley Kane and Geeklist co-founders Christian Sanz and Reuben Katz over a suggestive promotional video caught the web's attention. The video, which features a woman wearing a Geeklist t-shirt and not much else, sparked a fight that spiraled downward into insults and accusations by Sanz and Katz, even after Sanz acknowledged the controversial nature of the video.

    Geeklist has since apologized and launched a women in technology initiative, but the damage has been done, and the initiative only came after fierce controversy.

  3. A series of recent BusinessWeek articles highlighted the term "brogrammer," which is used somewhat jokingly to describe programmers who are more social than their stereotypes would suggest. The term has been heavily criticized for marginalizing the role of women who hack code.

We shouldn't be surprised by these incidents, unfortunately. The problem is simple: technology is still a male-dominated industry, and the gender ratio is far more skewed within engineering teams. Male-dominated teams lack female viewpoints, which can contribute to the objectification of women. Company culture within an early-stage startup is dramatically different when there is a female co-founder. (I have a female co-founder, so this issue is personal for me.)

We face a chicken and egg problem. If we want more women to become engineers and join the tech industry, we need to offer a culture that is more friendly to them. But building that culture requires having more women in technology. All of this needs to begin at the high school and college level, when students start exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering & mathematics) majors and careers.

"Why aren't there more women in tech?" It's the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is this: "How do we change the culture of the tech industry to be fair and friendly to women?"

Answering that question is the real challenge.