Tag Archives: gender

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.

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