Geek on the Cheap #134:Women in Tech in Tiny Numbers — Should we lower our expectations?

Apr 19, 2010 | Posted in Geek on the Cheap

Sunday’s NYTimes included a great article, “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley,” analyzing the reasons barriers still exist for women in the field of technology. Here are a few stats:

  • women create only 8 percent of venture-backed tech start-ups
  • they account for just 6 percent of chief executives in the top 100 tech companies
  • women account for just 22 percent (less than a quarter!) of software engineers at tech companies

These numbers are discouraging and surprised me. I personally know quite a few women who work as programmers and engineers, but that’s probably because I’m in the field myself. I should have realized, as the article states, that even though women now “outnumber men at elite colleges, law schools, medical schools and in the overall work force,” they’re still woefully underrepresented in engineering and computer science programs — the pipelines to careers in tech.

Which called to mind the low percentage of women in politics. Interestingly, the field of politics also has a “pipeline” problem according to “The Primary Reason for Women’s Under-Representation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom.” The pipeline in this case is a person’s professional background — law, business — where women comprise fewer workers than men, even though the numbers are fairly equal for obtaining university degrees in these subjects.

In both cases, one of the deterrents is the desire to focus on family. A career in tech, as in politics, is seen as, and often can be, many hours over the traditional forty per week and so all-consuming that it’s hard to focus on anything else. It’s the work/life-balance chestnut we’ll be roasting for decades to come.

The bigger issue for me is the question of self-confidence. The NYTimes article states, “Many analysts and entrepreneurs say that attitude [‘I have to know everything before I start; I have to have it all figured out’] — rooted in a lack of confidence — is the main reason that when women do pursue start-ups, they often do it later in life than men.”

I bristled when I read this. Why is wanting to be well prepared tantamount to a lack of confidence? And yet the more I rolled the idea around my noggin, the more I wondered if it’s true — partly true, anyway. When I started doing web development in the mid-90s, I jumped right in because it was a spanking-new field and the name of the game was figuring out how to do something with nothing. But when I started programming, I went back to school and took classes because I was nervous and wanted to be prepared — the field was well established and I wanted to shine.

Was I suffering from a lack of confidence?

Here’s another interesting factoid from the NYTimes article: “in a study of 493 undergraduate engineering majors’ intentions to continue with their major, men tended to stick with their studies as long as they completed the coursework, while women did so only if they earned high grades.”

Are we women trying too hard? Should we take a deep breath and just jump in? On the other hand, more than one of my former male bosses has told me that he prefers to work with women because they’re more detail-oriented and responsible.

Maybe we women are just living up to expectations. Good little workers, loving moms, hot-to-trot sexpots with perfectly shaved legs and bikini lines. It’s not too much to ask, is it?

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