Why there aren’t more women in tech? The public enjoys asking this question, while the business and tech writers at Forbes love answering it with articles that often lead with the headline, “Ten Reasons Why Women…and similarly influenced op-eds about glass ceilings (with the obligatory Lean In).
I find the question about getting more women in technology an interesting and relevant one. Harvey Mudd’s President, Maria Klawe offered an explanation: “We’ve done lots of research on why young women don’t choose tech careers, and number one is they think it’s not interesting. Number two, they think they wouldn’t be good at it. Number three, they think they will be working with a number of people that they just wouldn’t feel comfortable or happy working alongside.”
Klawe’s findings are just one of many attempts to answer the women-in-tech question. Several articles cite surveys that find girls are avoiding tech careers—ostensibly because we’re shallow and afraid of the stereotype affiliations of being socially awkward, or we’re singularly focused on computers, or we’re physically unattractive. However, I find the female vanity explanation out of touch with the reality of what I’ve experienced as a female undergrad interested in pursuing a career in technology.
I want to explore the women in tech question by not mulling over the causes of the problem (i.e. that girls play with Barbies while guys play with Legos), but instead by discussing some of the things I’ve observed as a Stanford student about that very phenomenon.
Over the course of two years, I have been lucky enough to hear the stories of talented women working in many facets of tech as engineers, product managers, venture capitalists and even startup CEOs. Yet regardless of the pace or size of the talk, there is one question that someone in the crowd inevitably asks: “How’s the work-life balance, managing your priorities in your professional and personal life?” I cringe whenever I hear this. Before us is an exceptional leader who has accomplished incredible things in her career, and you’re going to shift the focus of her presentation by asking her how she’s able to “do it all”?
While I think the work-life question is a very valid one, and something I’ve definitely thought about, I cannot recall a time I have ever heard a moderator or audience member ask a man that. This question is indicative of the wary mindset women have about male-dominated industries, technology being first and foremost among them. With that in mind, I think we can avoid questions like this by celebrating women already in technology, since people naturally like to “see” themselves in a job before pursuing it.
Of course, we do have female role models such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg sitting in C-level suites in the Valley. However, public interest in these figures has focused on not only their professional achievements, but also their work-life balance that undeniably stems from the fact that they are women. But by emphasizing that they’re the exceptions, not the rule, this seemingly singular fascination that has turned them into icons has also inadvertently shrouded them (who I want to note are also older and farther along in their careers) in an air of unattainability.
In spite of the diversity on campus, it’s easy to decipher Stanford’s archetypical dorm room startup founder: a Caucasian (and on occasion, Asian) male engineer. With the rise of the “brogrammer,” who (usually) collaborates with male peers on projects and ventures, many VCs use what they call “pattern matching” to identify good founders; unsurprisingly, pattern matching tends to favor preexisting patterns (i.e. the male Stanford startup founder). Since venture funding is so critical to a company getting off the ground, this self-perpetuating problem of the “archetypal founder” creates a barrier to entry (that is both real and imagined) for women breaking into the Silicon Valley boys club.
The question I originally posed is easy to answer—after all, we can point to a myriad of studies, testimonials and editorials as to why people think girls are underrepresented in tech. Figuring what we should do to address the issue is a separate topic. Although there is no panacea for this problem, we engage in more meaningful, thorough discussions when we work with girls who are experiencing these issues firsthand, instead of a middle-aged magazine columnist who can only speculate.
Building off the work of organizations like Girls Who Code and she++ that encourage girls to pursue their interests in STEM fields, I think that the next proactive steps would be to celebrate female technologists working across the industry in different capacities, as opposed the Sandbergs of the world that grace the cover of Forbes. We can get more female leaders leading engineering sprints and signing term sheets by deemphasizing “brogrammer” culture, and creating an inclusive, merit-based ecosystem where women feel like they belong and have an equal stake in the Valley.
Stephany Yong is the Vice President of Branding at BASES. Contact her at [email protected]