Why including women matters for the future of technology and society

The Women of ENIAC

The "Women of ENIAC." For their history, read "Programming the ENIAC."

Some issues trigger a deeper response than others within communities. In the technology world, the education, opportunities and inclusion of women holds unusual resonance.

In the U.S., as Nick Kristof wrote, “schoolgirls are leaving boys behind in the dust.” After graduation, the narrative evolves further. As Claire Cain Miller wrote in the New York Times on Friday, “women now outnumber men at elite colleges, law schools, medical schools and in the overall work force. Yet a stark imbalance of the sexes persists in the high-tech world, where change typically happens at breakneck speed.”

Why the disparity in the world of Silicon Valley startups, venture capital and high technology? Why are so few women in Silicon Valley?

At least some of the issue runs deep, far back into the educational system. As Miller writes:

That attitude is prevalent among young women. Girls begin to turn away from math and science in elementary school, because of discouragement from parents, underresourced teachers and their own lack of interest and exposure, according to a recent report by theAnita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Computer Science Teachers Association.

Just 1 percent of girls taking the SAT in 2009 said they wanted to major in computer or information sciences, compared with 5 percent of boys, according to the College Board.

Only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees in 2008 were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

So what can be done? How could including women in FOO Camp or making a list of women in tech or unconferences matter?

As computer scientist Hillary Mason tweeted tonight, “We don’t need affirmative action. We need meaningful culture change and support.”

Based upon the research a colleague gathered tonight, some actions could make an important difference in three ways:

(1) It’s good for men. Inclusion of women and minorities reduce stereotypes, and promotes second-order reflection on latent stereotypes, by providing real, first-hand experience. (Mahzarin R. Banaji and Curtis D. Hardin, Automatic Stereotyping, 7(3) Psychol. Sci. 136-41 (May 1996).)

This leads to better, more accurate evaluation of people’s work – because when people unconsciously use stereotypes, they mis-evaluate work. For example women’s presence in high-level orchestras basically doubled once auditions started to be done gender-blind, focusing only on the music.
(Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians, 90(4) American Econ. Rev. 715-41 (2000).)

(2) It’s good for women. The absence of women (or very low numbers of women) signals to women that they aren’t welcome or don’t belong, which can in turn cause them to leave the field or choose not to enter it in the first place. (William T. Bielby, Minimizing Workplace Gender and Racial Bias, 29(1) Contemporary Soc. 120-29 (2000))

Research also suggests that when women are invited to the table, they have more energy free to do good work, instead of using half their energy just breaking down the door. Reducing cognitive load on subjects who have to work to overcome stereotypes is not a minor factor.

(3) It’s good for business & technology. Whatever the vertical, the entire industry benefits when the best work is being created and presented. As Miller writes:

Analysts say it makes a difference when women are in the garages where tech start-ups are founded or the boardrooms where they are funded. Studies have found that teams with both women and men are more profitable and innovative. Mixed-gender teams have produced information technology patents that are cited 26 percent to 42 percent more often than the norm, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

In a study analyzing the relationship between the composition of corporate boards and financial performance, Catalyst, a research organization on women and business, found a greater return on investment, equity and sales in I.T. companies that have directors who are women.

The number of senior women doing major research and running labs in traditionally male-dominated fields like physics also offers insight into how efforts to include women can lead to merit-based selection across the broadest set of the best candidates. For instance, consider Lisa Randall, one of the most cited theoretical physicists of the last half-decade. Or Marissa Mayer, a senior Google exec who, as Miller wrote, many women she interviewed cited as “someone who gives them hope.”

Where to learn more

I don’t believe that most people are consciously biased, nor that they intend to be biased. Research into implicit bias suggests, however, that the most pervasive forms of bias are unconscious. Those biases can have tremendous effects on how we evaluate others, mostly to our own detriment – but also to our communities and industries.

Does the issue of women in tech matter to the bottom line? Miller’s reporting suggests that’s so:

Studies have found that teams with both women and men are more profitable and innovative. Mixed-gender teams have produced information technology patents that are cited 26 percent to 42 percent more often than the norm, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

In a study analyzing the relationship between the composition of corporate boards and financial performance, Catalyst, a research organization on women and business, found a greater return on investment, equity and sales in I.T. companies that have directors who are women.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of conferences, groups and networks that celebrate and honor women in technology, including:

O’Reilly Community also features an excellent series of essays on women in tech. For the fascinating story of how women were involved in “hacking” the world’s first programmable computer, pictured at the top of this post), read ENIACprogrammers.org. And the recent Ada Lovelace Day listed dozens of inspirational women who are innovators, inventors and educators.

Finally, Nick Kristof has done the world a mitzvah by writing eloquently about womens’ rights in his most recent book, “Half the Sky.” Learn more at HalfTheSkyMovement.org.


Filed under blogging, research, technology

30 responses to “Why including women matters for the future of technology and society

  1. “So what can be done? How could including women in FOO Camp or making a list of women in tech or unconferences matter?”

    A naive reader could be excused for extrapolating that no women currently attend FOO Camp, are on lists, or know about unconferences. But of course, this is not the case – they do attend such events already, and there are too many such lists.

    It is not obvious at all that more invites and more lists and more sleepovers will in any way improve young girls’ interest in STEM careers nor obviate the problem described by the female CEO fo Crimson Hexagon with regard to securing VC funding.

    The solutions to problems that develop during childhood are unlikely to lie in later life.

    • digiphile

      You are anything but a naive reader, Dr. Drapeau! And if that point was unclear, I apologize. You’re quite right that women can and do attend camps, unconferences — and of course they exist on many lists. The issues here are subtle and are in no way subject to easy answers or simple solutions. And you’re also right that the challenges that Candace Fleming aren’t going to be addressed through social media or events. Then again, I didn’t suggest those options as solitary or binary solutions.

      There is larger point to be made here about inclusiveness and opportunity, and in some respects elevating success stories is at least part of the way forward, particularly with regards to young girls. More role models make a difference. I’m reminded of a column by David Brooks last year on genius:

      If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense of affinity.

      This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and fueling a desperate need for success.

      Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group, Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another. This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

      Replace “writing” with “coding” and “novelist” with “developer” and perhaps you might see my thinking on the importance of mentorship, networks and modeling.

      In as far as the problems that exist in this area, I’m not sure they’re entirely created during childhood, nor that their remediation lies only in education in classrooms, libraries and laboratories.

      • Steven Mandzik

        There are too many women who want to be in tech.

        They are talented and ostracized.

        It’s true.

        All these lists and statements of support serve to help them.

        It’s way to easy to sit in an ivory tower and pretend that these tech woman don’t exist. It’s also easy to punt it to the next generation, especially when the punting never stops.

      • You are right that there are larger issues. And having women at unconferences, etc. is the right thing to be doing, of course. But I think that gender differences in career tracks, positive role models, etc. is almost a completely separate problem.

        On the other hand, I do think that bloggers, technologists, VCs et al. can do positive things. One recent example from my life is speaking at a Digigirlz event http://is.gd/bz9Mc This week, I’m participating with Microsoft in “take your daughter to work day” in New York City, where we’ll demo cool tech for them. I think activities like this get closer to the primary societal issues.

  2. @apustilnik

    Props to you for covering this important issue. And for teaching me something re the women of ENIAC! This is an important conversation, and it’s heartening when men & women are participating in it constructively together.

  3. Alex, Kudos for braving this topic. Huge. I invite all who care about it to stop thinking about the phrase “including women in technology”…it’s very male driven. It’s hugely acting like women are being ‘granted’ permission or allowance. Regardless of the numbers, every field of study and research is accessible, thankfully, where there’s freedom to pursue education. My intial tweet was more reactive than I should have initiated. Not good communicating on my part. But we’ve tweeted forth and back :) a bit and I feel a bit more familiar with you than someone else. Still where were my manners. Probably stuck behind a bit of feeling “oh might male dominated seeming field thank you for the permission to play.” And I do not think you mean that. It’s simply how it sounds.
    I’ve taught myself everything I know online. And I’m still so new. The hugely successful men in my family had tech departments. They think me rather geeklike and I was not really ever encouraged this way. But of late, Dad’s diggin the ipod he won in golf and may finally consent to my desire to get him an iphone. Maybe what I need to ask you is why you wrote this? What is your motive in this piece? Are you blue skying how can more women step up and become technologically savvy as anyone can? Help me see better your motive. Because therein may lie a more open title.
    What remains is my gratitude for the discussion, my commitment to helping girls/women get over the initimidation that’s there for a bazillion reasons, help others flourish with and not fear the tools.
    But greater than that, is my hope that this ‘topic’ is not one of ‘hey guys..let’s do the right thing and acknowledge the select women players who are showing up” My hope is that we hear more of “hey parents, hey all men and women…let’s see more of little 8 yr old girls getting laptops so they can brave the 300 stories they may be holding within each year.”

    Thanks for this effort. Here’s to all of us improving how we speak about women in technology and in all fields.

    • steve

      I agree. That statement “including women” sounds like they need to be granted permission.

      • digiphile

        If you have a suggestion to make it closer to the themes emphasized within the body of the post, I’d be open to changing it.

      • per the title….
        ‘Create atmosphere/ culture that expects women in technology”
        truth Alex, my view of technology is just so much broader than those who work with/on computers…tech departments.
        what do we agree constitutes technology?
        i see it as inclusive of all things that build language and communicating, critical thinking and self expression, science, mathematics, and social studies, art, music, film, photography…all the basic fields of K-12.
        Kinda fun to think about it that way because who’s the dominant gender in the field of education? at least in k-12? hmmm…women …and should that be?

        So more to your post…how to ensure tech field jobs are accessible to women? are equally paying of women? maybe that’s more your title…

        you haven’t answered what was your underlying motive in the body of the text. and i haven’t scrolled your blog to see if this is the first of the topic.
        something triggered the post.
        sharing what your motive was in blogging this may well share what you think the edited title should be.

        • digiphile

          Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Tresha. If I had a motive, it was to explore the research behind the issue, extend the discussion that Miller’s article stimulated and collect a few resources that might be valuable to others. What I found felt like it was worth sharing. Over years of immersion in the tech industry, the issue that clearly resonated amongst many women in the tech community was also important to me.

    • @apustilnik

      The phrase “including women” highlights the problem that exists, I think – not in male-dominating thinking but in the fact that entree to the club still often is driven by male decision-makers. So, I believe that those decision-makers *do* need to make conscious efforts to “include” women. Is that how it should be? No. Is that how it often is? Well – yes. But we can get to an ought from this is.

  4. Thanks for sharing this information. Just the love the pic. and story of The “Women of ENIAC.”

    I think people are respected and honoured for being a good human being first rather than with the biased approach of being a man or a woman.

    When you work in a team your emotional intelligence (EQ) will help you to acheive what you want using your IQ but if you are low on EQ then your only your IQ does not take you anywhere.

  5. Pingback: Stop talking, start coding

  6. Interesting post! I found the reduction of female comp sci graduates from 37% to 18% in 25 years to be particularly surprising. I never knew that!

    One of my favorite articles on gender is here: http://denisdutton.com/baumeister.htm

    A couple of key bits from there:

    “80% of people who work 50+ hour weeks are men.” As Comp Sci has expanded, maybe it’s becoming more of a pressure-cooker path?

    Men are attracted to the high-risk/high-reward paths. Sociobiologically, you can see why this makes a certain amount of sense. It seems like (from a public perception POV) Comp Sci has evolved somewhat from a “solid career path” to a “high risk tornado with a potential for a big win”, maybe?

    As you say, I think there are a lot of factors involved… But I think folks tend to avoid discussing the possibility of innate differences (in terms of motivation, at the very least). I’m not saying that’s THE answer, but it might be a bigger part of it than we give it credit for. I dunno.

    It’s also interesting to discuss the flip side. “Why aren’t there more men teaching in primary schools?”

  7. Pingback: A rant about humans

  8. I hate these conversations. Reminds me of this article from 2007:


    In my opinion, the reason more women don’t get noticed in tech is two-fold (note, gross generalizations from a women’s college graduate to follow):

    1) simple misogyny. I know that sounds extreme, but it’s true, and it’s not just men who are to blame.

    2) self-loathing/doubt/whatever you want to call it. In general, we don’t do a very good job of putting ourselves out there.

    I would say I’m pretty far from a self-loathing misogynist but I’m as guilty as the next person. Am I emailing Tim O’Reilly making a case for my inclusion in FOO camp? No. Should I be? Well, I’ve wanted to go for years, and have met the man, so…maybe.

    The women who get noticed (I won’t name names) are the women who are not afraid to say, “Look at me. Look what I’ve done!” OR, they are part of that 8% mentioned in the NYT article. And in order to do that they were probably one of the ones saying “Look at me. Look what I’ve done!” :)

    I’m realizing this sounds very woe-is-me, and that’s not my intention. I’m not sure of a solution, but awareness is half the battle. So, although I started this comment with “I hate these conversations,” thanks for opening up the dialog.

  9. It’s great to see awareness focused on women in technology. I also appreciate the mention of the Women’s Internet History Project. BUT where is our [women’s tech] history?

    The reason I’m to working on this project with Aliza Sherman and Jen Myronuk is for the preservation of the history of women who helped with pre-commercialization- commercialization [1980-1999] of internet, digital and technology. An industry dominated by men, some more willing than others to teach women how to program. Some recognized that women provide important insights that can change and improve a business, product or brand.

    Preservation of our history is important for future generations to understand what drove us to pursue interest in this area. Some of these factors include personality, culture, education or just the love technology.

    The information in the database will help to explain who, what, why and how. It will also contextually overlay current events, important women leaders of that time, and development of internet.

    Having our history preserved will provide a means for next generations of women with stories of successes and failures, potential mentors, and perhaps ideas for new technologies.

    Without the preservation of our [women’s tech] history — this question will again be raised, “Where are all the Women?”

  10. Alex and all….ya’ll may find of interest Allyson Kapin’s recent post on Fast Company http://bit.ly/d0GqJ0 continues this discussion probing reasons behind few women VC investors and few women run start up recipients…she further explores why’s behind ‘where are the women’ spanning perspectives across different sectors.
    Thanks Tery for insights re: Women’s Internet History project. Maybe there’s a place therein to capture success stories of startup recipients of VC…as I mention on Kapin’s post…gathering stories helps build precedent and collective resources for our daughters and sons today/tomorrow to glean from.

  11. Thanks for these observations and the list of resources. In video interviews with female entrepreneurs for Women 2.0, a set of themes has become consistent: surround yourself with a team that is prepared to work as hard as you do, be strategic in leading or selecting your development partners, and don’t assume you know anything about the massive amount of consumers you expect without researching them thoroughly: http://www.women2.org/in-conversation

  12. Pingback: diverse genius | the evolving ultrasaurus

  13. well, I am a woman and I am ready for techno renewal. I think your post is very useful and I always waited for updates from your

  14. Thanks for another great post, Alex. I especially like the resources you include for those unfamiliar with the history. I would say I *mostly* agree with you, but also feel that a continued focus on this may be creating a problem more than helping. Let me try to outline my thoughts on this:

    You have a multi faceted issue here.

    1. I am not sure it’s an issue of others needing to include women in conferences. I think to continue to focus on gender as a qualifier undermines the very thing we want to achieve: true equality. In order for that to happen, at least a portion of the burden lies on women ourselves. We must a) learn to make the ask and demand a place at the table just as a man would – we can’t ask for equality and special treatment/quotas in the same breath. It’s promoting of continued a double standard. We must also b) stop undermining each other. Women are hideously cutthroat toward other women, judging everything from how others parent to how they dress and act and work when we should be supporting each other instead.

    2) Recognize conferences like Social Media FTW (I’m one of the speakers) which is very co-ed but has a high ratio of women speaking, and they did it without being heavy handed about it in the way of a BlogHer or the new one (techwomen? I forget what it is called now, I just recall thinking to myself it would do more to separate us and undo any strides we’ve made than anything else when I heard it announced the other day). Don’t you remember when many fought against the notion of separate but equal in race? The same applies here, separation is not equality, not even when we as women choose to separate ourselves.

    3) It would serve our cause better to shift our focus. Stop creating a problem that doesn’t exist or rather, that is dissipating, in the adult world. Fight harder for speaking gigs just like a man would. Be pushy. Get over your reluctance to self promote. Promote your sisters. Then channel the energy you may have wasted worrying about first world problems like how many women attend or speak at a conference into outreach at a younger age. Go mentor girls in school like I encourage with the Strong Women in Tech initiative. Go be an example for them without teaching them false separate but equal mentality. Show them that women can and do succeed in all facets of the tech world and that alone will begin to encourage them to stick with their passions early on. Worry less about the stumbling blocks they may face from others treating them badly – that kind of thing can lead to the thicker skins they will need to run a real business some day if coupled with good mentors and the knowledge that they can get past the always awkward early years and succeed.

    4) I enjoy the support that can be found at many of the organizations you’ve linked above like WomenWhoTech, and so many of the women involved in each project are there to teach other women how to stop focusing on not being included and to learn how to be included. There are always a handful that can’t let go of the past or of preconceptions. You may enjoy two past podcasts I did on the subject when I was still doing Topics on Fire bi-weekly (I should really bring that back – I have so much fun doing it). They included everyone from Shireen Mitchell, Leslie Bradshaw, Meg Fowler and others to Chris Brogan. It was lively!

    Gendar Gap and Tech on Topics on Fire: Episode 1

    Gender Gap and Tech on Topics on Fire: Episode 2

    Leslie Poston
    Twitter @leslie

    • I’d like to add a fifth point to Leslie’s analysis: that of a “credibility gap” that faces women in technology or other male-dominated professions. It’s not just a question of education or recruitment, but retention.

      There’s quite a few studies that address retention issues for women in regards to work-life balance, glass ceilings and discrimination but the issue of credibility in the workplace is largely understudied. On a micro or team level it can be detrimental to professional success to be overtly dismissed or faced with micro-inequities (brushoffs, metaphorical “pats on the head”) due to gender.

      That still happens, unfortunately. “Stop complaining and start coding/leading/managing” is important for women to make inroads, but retention of women based on advancement and opportunity is the key to more women in technology. Implicit or explicit bias and credibility gaps undermine retention.

      We inaugurated the Women in SharePoint group at the May 2010 SharePoint Saturday DC and it has grown exponentially. Check out the live blogging at this week’s BPC10 conference http://womeninsharepoint.org/SitePages/About%20Us.aspx

  15. Is there a parallel between women’s roles in health care and women’s roles in the tech world?

    That’s essentially the question I received today from an academic who asked me for insights and/or contacts who could talk about “historical approaches to women’s health, discussing gender and health research, bias, information systems deficiencies and needs.” Oh, and how emerging technologies such as social media may be transforming both health care and technology, particularly among women. She didn’t ask about race/ethnicity or other forms of bias, but I would include that in my analysis if I wrote that book chapter.

    I’m not sure there is one person who could possibly cover that range of topics, but after crowdsourcing it on Twitter I’m convinced that there is no shortage of research & opinion.

    See, for example, Amy Romano’s incredible article: “Social Media, Power, and the Future of VBAC” http://bit.ly/cv0hzi

    Thanks, Alex, for this post, which still stands (4 months later) as the best set of links & discussion I’ve seen on the issue of gender & tech.

  16. Pingback: A rant about humans | space

  17. t is absolutely true. Including Women in the matters for society and technology does matters. God has created two unique creatures which are man and woman respectively. Woman has special powers which lies in her ability of thinking and her attitude.

  18. Prica

    You are right digiphile. I also think that young gals should b encourage by family and friends. So many gals out there are talented but have not been given the opportunity to show what they’ve got. Havin women in unconfrences…could be helpful. If they can be encouraged,their would b more women in da tech world…

  19. Pingback: A reply to an anonymous sexist comment about women, business and leadership | E Pluribus Unum

  20. As a female in the automotive industry, I appreciate this article very much.

    We don’t just want women to participate, we need them too.

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply to Bharati Ahuja Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.