Gender differences on the new frontier

March 10, 2009 | 16 comments

It’s a commonly accepted fact that computing is a male-dominated industry, but I was shocked by the scale of the inequality. Okay, this is kind of unscientific, but take a look at these statistics:

  • Female population of the world: 49.8%
  • Female population of Facebook: 55%
  • Female population of social networks as a whole: 54.7%
  • Percentage of people awarded undergraduate computer science degrees by PhD-granting institutions in the US and Canada in 2006-7 who were women: 12%

While social media usage is skewed ever so slightly towards women, a whopping 88% of the people who study to learn the skills to build these tools are men. This is at a time when, in science generally, women receiving undergraduate degrees are increasing as a percentage year on year.

Some of the reasons for this have been covered a lot over the past year. This 2007 interview with Aaron Swartz (who worked on Creative Commons and is now behind the awesome government site Watchdog.net) contains some interesting thoughts on discrimination on the basis of both gender and race:

If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.

[...] The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. [...] It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.

Last year, Chris Messina called out a BusinessWeek article for disproportionately featuring the male participants at Web2Open, a Web 2.0 technology unconference Tara Hunt had predominantly organized. He followed it up this month with another post about the Future of Web Apps as a white boys’ club:

Turns out, white men also don’t have the monopoly on the best speakers – even in the tech industry – yet their ilk continue to make up a highly disproportionate number of the folks who end up on stage. And that means that good content and good ideas and important perspectives aren’t making it into the mix that should be, and as a result, audiences are getting short-changed.

This isn’t just about technology, and it isn’t just about the commercial web. We’re in an era where everything is going online; Barack Obama would arguably not be President of the United States without his engagement with grassroots social media technologies, and he is certainly continuing to embrace them into his Presidency. Yet if those technologies are effectively controlled by a minority of the population, that population’s biases and predispositions seep into how they’re designed, how they’re built, and ultimately how they work in practice.

Although I’ve picked out gender here, the same is doubtless true regarding race and sexuality discrimination in the tech sector, although the numbers haven’t been as widely published. As computing becomes more and more important in society as a whole, it becomes more and more important to ensure the people who help shape it are selected fairly and represent a cross-section of the people it serves.

Update: Lots of really interesting links in the comments, including Katie Piatt’s recommendation of Ada Lovelace Day, which encourages people to blog about women in tech.

Meitar Moscovitz points me to Will the Semantic Web Have a Gender?, a ReadWriteWeb article from last year about the possibility that the semantic web will reflect a predominantly male attitude to the world.

Image by mouton.rebelle and released under a CC-Attribution-Noncommercial license.

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16 Comments

  1. Absolutely! I really like your post, and fully agree with the points you made. I was actually to see all the comments coming out of fowa about there not being any women there. I'm very used to not seeing a lot of women at most events (I even work at an all-male company), but it was nice to see the guys noticing the inequality too.

    Means that all-male is not status quo anymore, but something worth commenting on. I think that was a big first step – your blog entry is another – we're getting there, and every little bit helps.

    Stephanie Bergman March 10, 2009 (7:20 pm)
  2. I find I didn't study science because there was a lack of support in my interest in it. They said, why would you want to work in a lab? I am studying some science on my own now. But still women aren't encouraged to pursue science regardless. And then there's the sexist stuff. But that goes on everywhere.

    Jaalah March 10, 2009 (7:22 pm)
  3. It is a symptom crossing over so many sectors relating to S.T.E.M. While more women are getting degrees than ever and we are seeing increases in S.T.E.M. degrees for women; the ratio of women vs. men in these areas (or as you point out, like the computing industry) is still very unbalanced. As women continue to forge into this field we will see a balance occur as the saturation level increases.

    The end of your post brings up some tremendous questions though, about technology in our culture and who shapes them. Does the developer shape it or the need of the audience he is developing for? I don't think you can lay the burden of development for an app/social network/site on either party exclusively. I think it is this constant feedback loop that occurs. This should mean that as long as men in the industry are listening to their audience and the audience is participating in testing and development then a mutually beneficial product should emerge.

    Now, do I think we need to help balance the representation of women in tech? Sure, I do, at least until that saturation point reaches a level that equal representation becomes unavoidable.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Brandy Tichonoff March 10, 2009 (7:36 pm)
  4. The problem isn't just the sexual stuff, many of my women scientist clients have told me that they're continually held down, stonewalled, stopped, not chosen for projects they're qualified for, as well as insulted privately and publicly, and feel they have no chance of getting ahead in the professional Science Boys Club. Some links:
    #
    Climbing the Ladder: An Update on the Status of Doctoral Women …
    Salaries Median salaries paid to women industrial scientists and engineers are lower than those for men even among the most recent Ph.D.s (Figure 5.2~. …
    books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=243&page=66 – 29k –
    #
    The Scientist : Fixing the Leaky Pipeline [2008-01-01]
    Jan 1, 2008 … The recent NAS report describes studies showing how the stereotype that women scientists are less prestigious is still prevalent. …
    http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/54076/ – Similar pages
    #
    The freedom to say 'no' – The Boston Globe
    May 18, 2008 … Why aren't there more women in science and engineering? … has long interested social scientists as an explanation for how … (It has since been expanded to 5000 participants, many from more recent graduating classes. …
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/05... –

    Barbara Sher March 10, 2009 (7:44 pm)
  5. I'm happy to read something about gender. This post remind me of Ivan Illich about gender & sex in the 80's. May be something to read for a further development ? http://ournature.org/~novembre/illich/1982_gender

    AkaSeltzer March 10, 2009 (7:47 pm)
  6. Thanks very much for the links, which show that the problem is far from limited to computer technology in the sciences. I certainly didn't mean to imply that it was just sexual discrimination – the "boys' clubs" cliques and the glass ceilings that result from them are a huge problem.

    benwerd March 10, 2009 (7:48 pm)
  7. I have nothing but hurrahs and support for your arguments here, Ben. I am personally extremely invested in the gender and technology divide, for many reasons, many of which are actually technical! If you haven't seen it yet, you should also definitely take a look at this ReadWriteWeb post, "Will the Semantic Web have a Gender?"

    I'd like to point you at a recent video of a presentation I gave called "Gender and Technology" which touches on a host of these issues. (The slides of this presentation along with my <a hef="http://maymay.net/blog/2009/01/22/gender-and-technology-at-ignitesydney-with-presentation-slides/">presenter notes are also available on my blog.)

    Again, I think you're spot on and this really needs a lot more exposure. I thank you for bringing this topic into the limelight here on your site! :)

    Meitar Moscovitz March 10, 2009 (8:01 pm)
  8. Oh boo, the links here were stripped out:

    Will the Semantic Web have a Gender? is at

    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/will_the_sem

    My presentation video is at:

    http://vimeo.com/3553527

    My presentation notes are at:

    http://maymay.net/blog/2009/01/22/gender-and-tech

    Meitar Moscovitz March 10, 2009 (8:03 pm)
  9. It's really gratifying to see some positive replies to all this. I wasn't aware of that ReadWriteWeb article – thanks for pointing me to it. I'm about to edit my post to link it up, because it provides some backup for my argument about gender bias in software architecture.

    I'll check out your presentation; thanks for pointing me at that too :) And boo to IntenseDebate for screwing with the links. Sorry about that.

    benwerd March 10, 2009 (8:06 pm)
  10. Theres some research (http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2006/03/w… ) that women need role models…and for technology, there just aren't that many – or at least theya ren;t very visible. The project I'm interested in that is trying to address this is Ada Lovelace day: http://findingada.com/ I'm going to write about Marisa Mayer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marissa_Mayer ) who is plenty role model for me!

    Katie Piatt March 10, 2009 (8:25 pm)
  11. Thank you for this post – clearly a really important topic, and one that doesn't have an easy answer! As a life-long female and former full-time computer geek, my 2 cents on the topic (as posted to Chris Messina's post, which you mention above): I think it would help if the industry were *pro-active* about implementing logistical, cultural changes to make hi-tech dev a more feasible, more attractive place for women to work. I have been consistently impressed with stories I’ve heard about Deloitte and Touche’s “Women’s Initiative,” for example (http://is.gd/lmMl). While I would not personally want to go into consulting for various reasons, one of my brightest women friends chose to work for Deloitte precisely because of their initiative, which customizes work around women’s needs and works with women so that they are not forced to choose between career and family, for example. This is a thorough-going cultural problem. Those with clout in tech (overwhelmingly men, at this point) need to take the initiative to make a change.

    Barbara Hui March 10, 2009 (8:49 pm)
  12. URL from my comment is 'resolving' incorrectly as is, so here it is again:
    http://is.gd/lmMl

    Barbara Hui March 10, 2009 (8:54 pm)
  13. I was amazed when my work merged into a larger organisation that their IT dept had not just 1 woman, (which given the 20:1 or worse m:f ratio in my degree course would have been noteworthy in itself), but 3 in a department of 7, one of whom is the head of department. Currently we have 4 in a department of 11.

    Sven Edge March 10, 2009 (9:39 pm)
  14. At school I was choosing between applying for music or computing at uni. I wasn't particularly encouraged either way by teachers or careers advice, but I think what made me go for music was that my school stopped teaching the final-year Computing course that year, instead trialling a new Information Systems course that no-one really understood. I wanted to do programming and that wasn't in the syllabus any more. So that was the end of that.

    In my institution the IT dept is led by a woman but the other five or so members are men. The admin staff as a whole are majority female. I think you'll find library systems is where quite a few techie women end up – librarianship generally is woman-dominated, systems specialism less so but still a sizable female contingent. Not sure why this happens – perhaps because there's a route into it that doesn't require undergraduate/graduate level *computing* training, so those of us who realise later on we want to go down the IT route can get started there.

    There's a similar discussion going on elsewhere at the moment about why women aren't doing as much political blogging as men. I think one look at the bile and personal insults posted as comments on some women's political blogs gives an idea of why – who in their right mind would choose to put up with and engage with that? Stella Creasy makes some interesting points on the subject:

    http://www.labourlist.org/stella-creasy-internati

    I also think in our society (blame patriarchy or whatever) there's an undercurrent that damages women's self-esteem and makes them think their opinions are less valid or that they're not qualified enough to write on particular topics. I don't think the gender imbalance has anything much to do with brain wiring – as Deborah Cameron says in her excellent book The Myth of Mars and Venus, the variation within sexes is far greater than the variation between sexes.

    Edith

    multifaceted March 11, 2009 (12:00 pm)
  15. Another annecdote to add to the collection: the group I now work in consists of 3 women (if you include the manager) and 6 men, which is typical for the scientific and technical groups, including software development. However, the IT department, which consists of over 50 people, only has one woman that I know of (based in Oslo). When I left IT I was on the interviewing panel for my successor and there were no female applicants (at least not that got as far as being seen by anybody in IT).

    Gareth Francis March 11, 2009 (12:18 pm)
  16. Fantastic Blog!

    It is SOO REFRESHING to see an honest perspective given on the role of women in IT! It’s fantastic that someone has taken to publish the truth about the industry.

    I have worked in the industry for 5 years and have now decided to take a new route as I felt as though I have been walking around with a bulls eye target around my neck for too long. I commend the women that stay however for my own sanity AND most of all safety I am looking forward to a new direction.

    Teresa October 13, 2009 (8:15 am)

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