This year more women than men enrolled in Berkeley’s introduction to computer science course, for almost certainly the first time ever. It’s encouraging news; women are exceedingly underrepresented not only in computer science but in tech in general. To coincide with this month’s observation of Women’s History Month, we asked some women who are UX experts about their experiences working in technology.
What will have to change for more women to not only go into tech fields, but stay in them?
Irene Au: The media needs to start portraying people in tech differently, so that young women and girls can more easily see themselves working in these fields. The rise of the information age led to increased portrayal of computer scientists as young, white, male nerds, which has contributed significantly to the steady decline of women in computer science since its peak in 1984.
To get more women in tech, we need more women in tech. We can break this chicken-egg problem by changing the way the media portrays tech workers, by showcasing a variety of women who work in tech (not just the usual two or three who might be CEOs or COOs of large consumer internet companies), their journeys, and how they manage their lives. Leaders at tech companies must genuinely believe that gender diversity is important and model behavior that fosters an environment that is friendly toward women and diversity.
We also need great teachers to inspire and motivate more kids (not just girls) to pursue computer science. The biggest hurdle is the lack of qualified teachers. Nine out of ten schools don’t even offer computer programming classes. In 33 of 50 states, computer science doesn’t count towards high school graduation math or science requirements, so even if kids want to learn how to code, there is little incentive to do that on top of their regular requirements. These systemic issues have to change.
As is the case with any field dominated by men, there are overt and hidden biases that can drive women away from the field. Education efforts such as those offered by the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) help heighten awareness of what those biases are and how to avoid them. Unfortunately, the people who most need to receive such training are the least likely to engage with it.
Brenda Laurel: I have two observations. First, girls tend to fall off the math-science-tech wagon in sixth or seventh grade. After that, it is much more difficult to engage them in tech. Part of this is social (although that aspect is diminishing, I think, these days). But part of it is also a deeper identity construction. How can tech become a vehicle as available as writing or art for self-expression or passions regarding to change? This needs to be revealed in sixth or seventh grade. Also, the movement from arithmetic and science into the abstract world of mathematics and computation is abrupt at the beginning of middle school. We need to provide bridges between the natural and social worlds to the world of abstract, symbolic thinking.
Second, in my experience, female-identified designers tend to be more willing to climb a steep learning curve for a valuable outcome rather than for the sake of mastery alone. One of the things that needs to happen is the foregrounding of outcomes in the teaching of computer science. For example, the upsurge of female-identified authorship in narrative games comes from the unique outcomes that the form provides. In biochemistry and other scientific endeavors, female-identified designers tend to be more engaged when the outcome is, say, curing a disease or understanding a biological process than when it is simply to write elegant code.
Christina Wodtke: We form models of what is possible and acceptable when we see people like us in those roles, from technology to life sciences. While there is indeed a chicken-and-egg problem of “there are no women so there are no women,” we can address it by taking the small number of women we have and making them a lot more visible. We need the women to speak at conferences, give interviews, and generally be seen. For that to happen, conferences, reporters, and VCs have to work hard to make sure they are creating opportunities for women to be seen in important roles. Otherwise we sacrifice a generation of great minds that might solve our toughest problems.
Getting them to stay tech is going to be a lot harder. Women can’t solve it alone. It starts early, in high school, where girls are ostracized for being in the wrong class and having the “wrong” interests. This sums up the typical hazing a competent girl will go through, and is a template for how many companies treat women. The recent story on Julie Ann Horvath’s GitHub experience reads remarkably similar. Even when they are not actively being hit on or threatened, women are ignored, told they are talking too much, have their ideas discarded, and are regarded as mate potential rather than valuable employees. It will take effort by everyone, men and women, to change the environment.
How might tech change with more diversity among practitioners?
Brenda Laurel: Diversity of purpose and content is a major change that I would foresee from a diversity of practitioners.
Christina Wodtke: There have been plenty of studies showing that diversity leads to higher levels of creativity and more innovative solutions at MIT’s Sloan as well as other business schools. Friends who are venture capitalists often complain about “yet another photo-sharing app.” Is this surprising when it’s made by “yet another” white male founder? If we can get more women into technology, we will have new insights and new life experiences that will lead to new design approaches, new products, and new solutions to problems currently being ignored.
Harvard Business Review has been publishing article after article showing that companies with cooperative environments perform better than those with internally competitive environments (where you set employees against each other for incentives such as bonuses). Add to that the research showing women are more effective in cooperative environments (see the work of Uri Gneezy). It’s possible that bringing women into tech workplaces will improve tech companies’ ability survive. Obviously this is speculative, but if I were the CEO of a scrappy young tech company, I would want to give it a shot.
Finally, having a lot more women around might keep companies from falling into what I call “the wife” problem. I can’t tell you how often I am in a meeting with senior execs, and they are talking about what women want, and someone says, “Well, my wife likes this.” Perhaps if the company were gender balanced, there would be a better understanding that women, like men, vary widely. One wife’s opinion doesn’t really represent the entire female gender. And maybe that company would be better at serving the entire market, not just half. That’s a company I’d want to own stock in.
You’re all authors, speakers, and conference organizers. What challenges have you encountered or observed in trying to get women’s voices heard?
Brenda Laurel: Conferences and speaking engagements tend to be an outgrowth of excellent research and/or excellent writing. If one wishes to be involved in this way, one must make a commitment to making one’s own voice heard severally—articles, papers, tweets, accomplishments. Female-identified designers tend to be shy and self-denigrating, assuming that self-promotion is some sort of hype. If you have something important to say, it’s not hype; it’s a contribution to the public good. Courage in spite of negative stereotypes is very important.
Christina Wodtke: Design has always been a good place for women in tech, as it's been balanced genderwise. For some reason it never got perceived as a girl or boy career. It it feels—completely anecdotally—as it’s grown in prestige, it’s become someone what more male. I certainly note that in conferences, the design speakers are overwhelmingly male. This is annoying and perplexing since it does not reflect the base demographics. In an engineering world where there is a smaller pool to draw on, I know it's really hard to find female speakers. But in design?
That said, as I curate a conference of all-invited speakers, every single person who has reached out and asked to speak is male. And white. I have heard stories from other conference organizers as well, that women flake out and turn down at a higher rate. I assume that is connected to the reality of them carrying the bulk of family work and feeling like they must lean in at home. When there is an emergency with child or parental care, it falls overwhelmingly on the woman’s shoulders. Clearly, if we want the world to change, we all have to work hard to make it happen. Men must support their women, not just with words but with actions. Laundry would be a good start (grin).
Irene Au: There are several factors at play that affect low representation of women speakers at conferences. As Christina points out, women usually get invited at a lower rate, even if they are evenly represented in the field. Our own perception of “who is good” is influenced by one’s gender, at the most subconscious level, even amongst the most well-intentioned people.
Women tend to underestimate their own abilities and may feel less confident in presenting their ideas onstage compared to men, leading them to decline opportunities. Women are judged more harshly than men, by women and men. They have to be an order of magnitude better to be perceived as at least as good as a man of comparable experience/capabilities.
Perhaps because of all the above factors, women will usually put more effort and hours into preparing for a speaking engagement than men, so it really does amount to a lot more work (on top of home/family responsibilities).
Any advice for women embarking on, or considering, a career in tech?
Brenda Laurel: Find your passion—and see if tech can help you manifest good things. I say this to all genders of students, but I find that it is most effective with female-identified designers who are motivated by passion but fearful of getting pigeon-holed by the content they work with. One of my very best graduate students was a woman who was incredibly competent but shy about her passions. Finally, we came to understand together that her passion--dogs--was something OK to deal with in computer-based interaction, and that she would be judged not by her skill in dealing with dog issues but rather by her skill in creating a trans-media system that addressed her passion. This turned out to be true. Now she is a highly respected designer of interactive media, period. And she works in diverse domains.
Indi Young: I have advice for getting young people interested in a career in tech, male or female. But I don’t have advice for women already considering the choice of tech versus some other career. As far as getting more kids interested in computing … it isn't exactly known as a creative endeavor. Not like designing cars or drawing comics or designing architecture. It doesn't look as fun as directing movies or being a basketball player. Kids, male or female, who have a higher social standing probably shy away from computing because it's also a bit geeky, and getting excited about computing would erode their social cred. Wait. Maybe this isn't true anymore? I think probably gaming, or game-writing, has a lot more attraction because it's akin to movie-directing, and it's socially "cool" to be good at gaming.
Writing apps for mobiles has become attractive to kids for the "fame and money" aspect, probably, and because of Steve Jobs's fame. But the rest of computing … writing an enterprise application or factory-floor automation software, or four-box decision-making automation for robotic equipment (or rovers) … that's all less "creative" seeming. Maybe we can map out some ways to make "stars" out of some of the grown-ups who are doing this now, or something. (Same goes for bio-chemistry, physics, engineering, etc. E.g. Some architects get fame and fancy case studies printed in magazines. But the folks doing the calculations to make sure the building withstands an earthquake? No mention.) Anyway, this is just a thought for getting youngsters interested, no matter which gender.
I wish emphasis on demographics would go away and we could all just focus on behavior. But I also know that's a pipe dream. And I understand that there are still many instances where one person treats another in a less-than-nice way because of demographics. Hence the emphasis on demographics. Sigh.
Irene Au: The tech industry is a great industry for women to work in. In many cases, it offers the flexibility for workers to set their own hours and work remotely. Many companies are increasingly aware of the gender imbalance and welcome the opportunity to hire qualified female employees. And the more women the field, the easier it becomes for more women to enter the field. By being part of this industry, you are helping other women.
Don’t be afraid to carve your own path. At the same time, find ways to connect with other women in the industry; there is a lot to be gained by learning and working with other women. Where possible, try to have at least one other woman in the room with you in meetings; if just 25 percent of the people present are women, that can change the tenor of a meeting significantly.
Christina Wodtke: I get asked this a lot! So many young women have fallen in love with technology, but find the people who work in it harder to deal with than the technology itself. Here is a short list of advice that I’ve found works:
- One: Not all companies are alike. If you feel like you’re being treated unfairly, don’t give up on tech. Ask around. There are many awesome places where you can do your job and grow in your craft.
- Two: don’t wait for a magical fairy mentor to come your way. Be your own mentor, and make a cabal of women like you so you can mentor and support each other.
- Three: Get out there and speak. It’s well worth your dime to take a course like Duarte offers, or find a local speaking coach. If they are too expensive, find a local acting coach. Same thing, often cheaper. Those skills will take you from the SXSW stage to CEO presentations. It will help give you the confidence you need to rule the world; you’ll never regret it.
- Four: If you find success, pay it forward. Like Madeleine Albright says, there is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women. You don’t have to fix the world; just give back what you can.
Like what these experts had to say? You can have them bring their brains to you. Irene Au, Brenda Laurel, Indi Young, and Christina Wodtke are available for consulting and training through Rosenfeld Media.
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