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Women in technology

The computer science department is celebrating a new milestone this year: For the first time, computer science is the most popular major for women at Stanford. While I could not find the percentage breakdown of the latest numbers, the trend from historical data over the past six years saw women as a percentage of undergraduate CS majors go from 13 percent in 2009 to a whopping 28 percent in 2014. I would not be surprised if the ratio for 2015 lies around 1-to-3 or higher.

In a field plagued by underrepresentation of women and non-Asian minorities, this is perhaps an encouraging sign of the changing times. A recent dialogue between the former CEO of Mozilla, John Lilly, and the President of Y Combinator, Sam Altman, in a classroom at Stanford left a strong impression. The conversation turned to the question of diversity in tech, and, in a room of over 100 people almost entirely male, both of them nodded in agreement about having personally felt that Silicon Valley and the tech industry had become noticeably less diverse during the time they have been here.

Neither of them was willing to make any conjectures for why this is happening. At one point, Lilly expressed his genuine surprise at the small number of women who applied to his class and stared meaningfully into the distance, apparently lost in thought. Sitting in a classroom of mostly men, the visceral image of two white guys who appeared to be deeply concerned and sincerely puzzled by the lack of gender diversity was simultaneously humorous and thought-provoking.

As a proposed answer to this apparent conundrum, I am going to make a rather controversial claim here: Women tend to be more inspired by meaning and helping the community than the abstract sense of achievement. Part of the reason for the CS department’s success in attracting female undergraduates is because of a stronger emphasis in recent years on promoting the societal impact and positive outcomes of applied technology.

Assuming that you accept my claim, I propose that the reason for decreasing diversity is then simple: Silicon Valley is becoming more like Wall Street. A 2014 report from job site Vettery found that 77.5 percent of first-year analysts at investment banks are men, the same as it was in 2013. Like their Wall Street counterparts, many startups today build products that seek profits through micro-optimizations and clever arbitrage of value — spiritual successors to the industry that invented high-frequency trading and credit default swaps. There are entire sectors of the tech industry dedicated to being slightly better at delivering ads and collecting a bit more data about consumer behavior — so much for our lofty goals.

While I do not have the data to back this up, I believe from experience that if we look at different types of tech companies, we will find that companies that directly impact people in positive ways like Airbnb tend to have greater gender diversity than companies that operate in technical abstraction. When I say that the tech industry is becoming more like the financial industry, I am really channeling the spirit of Karl Marx in believing that, increasingly, the tech worker is alienated from the product of his or her labor. We have cast aside our desire to change the world for the better, and entered a new rat race of venture money, blistering hubris and emotional void.

I want to slightly preempt objections by clarifying that my claim here does not make any assumptions about whether this difference between men and women is necessarily biological or socialized. That is a much more difficult and nuanced discussion to be had another day. But assuming that such a difference in outlook does exist for whatever reason, then the question that I leave you with is this: In the noble pursuit of increasing gender diversity in tech, are we making progress by inevitably conditioning more women into accepting the narratives of a male-dominated tech industry, or are we transforming the industry itself to be a more appealing endeavor for women? For example, does encouraging women to participate in hackathons overlook the philosophies that underlie the very concept of hackathons? My thoughts on this continue to evolve.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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