Women in High Tech

There are remarkably few women in the computer industry, especially on the technical ladder.  The higher the technical rank, the lower the percentage of women.

I’ve been in the industry a long time, and things do not seem to be changing.  The ratios seem to be about the same across companies in the industry, which leads me to wonder:

  1. Why are there so few women in the industry?
  2. Does it matter?
  3. What could be done to change it?

Before I tackle these questions, it’s important to note that generalizations about gender are only statistical.  There are lots of exceptions.  That being said, I’ll try to conjecture about why there are so few women in the industry.

Here are some of my theories:

  • Women think they won’t be good at it; perhaps because they imagine engineers fitting the stereotype of having built a computer out of spare parts as children, and they didn’t do that.
  • Women want a career that they think of as overtly altruistic, such as teaching, social work, or medicine.
  • Women get discouraged by aggressive people in the industry.
  • Subconscious bias by hiring managers; there are some people who have trouble seeing a “true engineer” unless the candidate reminds them of a younger version of themselves – harder to do for women when there are more male hiring managers out there.
  • Social compatibility; women often want a team to be friends. One woman confided in me that the people in her department (all men other than her) bonded as a working team by playing sports like football.  She was petite and her colleagues avoided really playing with her because of the (probably realistic) fear that she’d get hurt. When she tried to suggest less physical activities, like a potluck dinner, no one was interested.

Why does it matter if there are very few women?

  • The best kind of team is one that has a variety of skills, so that team members can complement each other. Also, so that they look at problems from different angles.
  • The industry often has trouble finding enough good people. Doubling the pool of candidates by including both genders will surely help.
  • It could be that with so few women, a vicious cycle is in play; women feel out of place, hiring managers recruit their friends from college, etc. More women in the industry could break this cycle.

So, what can we do?

Well, it would certainly be counter-productive to randomly hire and promote less qualified women, so we need to be creative about finding, recruiting, and retaining those who are qualified.

Some things that I think can help:

  • There needs to be “adult supervision” in the workplace, watching out for relentlessly self-promoting bullies – of any gender. Those people often do well for themselves, but are toxic to the productivity of those around them.  And, in my experience, these people are not good technically.  Truly competent people don’t need to act that way, and they don’t.
  • Hiring managers need to understand that the healthiest team has diverse members; not necessarily body shape and skin tone, but different ways of looking at the world.
  • In the school setting, recruiters at K-12 schools should let all students know how great the technology field is and how many different areas it covers. If you want to do something altruistic, maybe you choose to design prosthetic limbs.  Or artistic, you could design web pages or do movie special effects.  Communication? Giving presentations, teaching, and writing documentation are often parts of technical careers. There are many opportunities.

I’ve learned about some of the ways that EMC is involved in communities around the world supporting the development of women in technology.

Women in Tech Forum in Chengdu, China

We support a Women in Tech Forum in China.  Each year, roughly 300 young women at Chinese universities gather together to learn more about the importance of technology and how there is a place for them in the field.

We sponsor robotics competitions for youth and employees serve as mentors.  Check it out: VEX Robotics in Ireland

In California, EMC supports an engineering competition called the Tech Challenge, which is an annual design challenge that introduces and reinforces the engineering design process with a hands-on project aimed at solving a real-world problem, such as urban planning and construction in an earthquake zone.  In fact, we also partner with Citizen Schools to encourage underrepresented groups to participate in the event.

I don’t think there is any magic solution here. We all (women and men) have to remain committed, working together on these and other steps that people might think of, to gradually change for the better.

About the Author: Radia Perlman