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Business & Technology

Growing From the STEM Up: Root Problems of the Tech Gender Gap

August 22, 2017

Take a minute to think about how you use technology. Maybe you’re part of the uncompromising analog minority, your flip phone clipped to your hip and your fingertips vaguely gray from turning the actual pages of the morning paper. Chances are, though, your life is powered by a series of apps and devices, and your day looks something like this:

Wake up to the sound of your iPhone alarm, check the Nest cam to see if the kids are still sleeping, ask Alexa to read you the weather forecast while you brush your teeth. Ask Alexa to add toothpaste to your shopping list.

Scroll through the headlines on your tablet, order your coffee on the Starbucks app, check your calendar.

Check your Fitbit. Call the dentist, the vet, the chiropractor, and your mom while you walk around the house in circles to get your steps in. Check your Fitbit again.

Set the thermostat and the home security system from your phone before you pull out of the driveway. Ask Siri to play your “Morning Commute” playlist.

Drop off the kids, pick up your coffee, go to the office, and sit down in front of another device with a screen for eight hours.

Stop at the grocery store and wonder why your shopping list has “truth steaks” on it. Get home and remember you’re out of toothpaste. Tell Alexa she’s getting replaced by a ballpoint pen and a post-it note.

BYO Logic

Now take a minute to think about who’s developing the technology that you’re using. You’d think that as tech becomes more diverse and more accessible, the tech industry would also become more diverse and more accessible. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case.

The eye roll-inducing 10-page memo by now FORMER Google employee James Damore has stirred up a lot of conversation about women in tech. This is encouraging on one hand, because talking about things is the best way to change them, but it’s disheartening on the other, because it highlights the fact that we still have a LOT of work to do before gender equality is where it needs to be.

Sure, bro, we get that there are biological differences between men and women. However, since none of these differences have any impact on the ability to write code, design apps, engineer software, analyze data, or, you know, have really good ideas, they’re not that relevant.

We Can’t Stress This Enough

Damore’s assertion that women can’t handle stress as well as men actually ignores biology right back to the beginning of human existence. Is it more stressful to hunt giant animals with homemade spears than to whip up side dishes out of stuff that grows in the forest, find water that won’t kill you, keep the cave clean, keep the fire burning, make sure no one gets eaten by a saber tooth tiger, and oh, yeah, HAVE ALL THE BABIES? Probably not. It just gets more attention.

Thousands of years later, men aren’t expected to chase down wooly mammoths anymore, but women still seem to do most of the childbearing…and now, more often than not, we’re out on the hunt too. We put out metaphorical fires now instead of stoking real ones, and we might be more worried about school bullies and social media than we are about tigers, but even though we are just as educated, intelligent, and capable as our male peers, we still take on the lion’s share when it comes to childcare and household management.

We work harder to make less, and then we come home and scrub crayon scribbles off the walls. It’s a good thing Magic Erasers were invented fairly recently, or all the cave drawings would have been long gone before we learned anything about prehistoric life.

Give Me One Reason to Stay Here

Damore implies that women may be less suited to the technology industry than men because on average (a phrase he uses throughout the memo), they are more connected to family and feelings and less to status and systems. Setting aside the issue that men are rarely questioned about their ability to be parents AND have careers, this simply doesn’t explain the imbalance of women in tech. According to a Wall Street Journal article published in response to the Damore piece:

“The No. 1 reason women leave tech isn’t a life transition like starting a family, but the fact that they didn’t feel welcome or included at their companies, in their teams or within the industry as a whole. This is according to many studies, from researchers at MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as well as professional societies and private foundations."

Let’s take a step outside the tech world for a moment. On average, women do more cooking than men. Yet no one tells men that they just don’t have the temperament to be chefs…in fact, they dominate that industry too. A fantastic male chef is no more or less plausible than a brilliant female engineer…the difference is that to be respected, the latter has to climb her way so far above that “on average” label that the air starts to get thin. For a man to succeed, he might have to swim the fastest. For a woman to succeed, she often has to swim the fastest upstream.

Digging in…

Unfortunately, the tech gender gap hasn’t been closing. It’s getting wider. Like, Grand Canyon wide.

  • In 1984, 37% of all computer science graduates were women. Currently, we’re at just 18%, less than half of where we were when the movie Ghostbusters came out (you know, the original one where only the guys got to be phantom-capturing scientists and the girls were secretaries and Sigourney Weavers in distress).
  • By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields. US graduates are on track to fill 29% of those jobs. Women are on track to fill just 3%.

The thing about obstacles, though, is that you learn a lot from them. If a little girl’s interest in or affinity for a STEM subject is discouraged or diminished, she might give up. But if she doesn’t give up, she’ll dig in. If there’s no path in front of her, she’ll clear one, and by the time she gets where she’s going, she’ll be so familiar with the terrain that she can navigate it with her eyes closed tight.

As tech journalist Holly Brockwell pointed out to James Damore and everyone who saw merit in his memo:

“It might be comforting for mediocre men to believe that they’re simply born superior. That’s what society’s been telling them all their lives, and no one questions a compliment. But when they try to dress up their insecurities as science, they’d better be ready for women to challenge them on the facts. Because really, sexism is just bad programming, and we’d be happy to teach you how to fix it.”

… and Digging Ourselves Out

Thankfully, there are amazing programs like Girls Who Code dedicated to closing the technology gender gap by empowering and preparing young women to pursue tech careers. At Our Life CoveredSM, we are proud to be part of that movement in our own small but significant way as a digital agency created for women by women.

We have a lot of work to do, and we have to do it together. As women, we must support the other women in our lives, and in our fields, and we must help educate the men. We must be diligent, confident, and persistent. When we stop looking at where the line falls on the graph and remember that every individual point of that line has the ability to go absolutely anywhere on the grid. When we stop treating each other like averages and start treating each other like people…that’s when things will start to change.

So let’s get started.

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