The Real Reason Most Women Don’t Go Into Tech
(This post originally appeared on Forbes)
We’ve come a long way from the days of Mad Men’ssecretaries and cigarette girls. But make no mistake about it: although things have improved, women are still not equal in the workplace. They do not receive equal pay. They do not receive equal treatment. And they are still subject to harassment and discrimination on the job. And being a woman in the tech industry is even tougher. There are hundreds of stories, dozens of studies and the occasional trial (like the Ellen Pao discrimination case which is currently rocking Silicon Valley) that demonstrate this. Hillary Clinton highlighted the issue when she spoke there recently. Female leaders from Sheryl Sandberg to Emma Watson have campaigned for equality.
The environment needs to change, for sure. But this is still not the reason why most women don’t go into tech.
My son is a second year, undergraduate mechanical engineering student. There are about a hundred engineers in his class and less than ten of them are women. Take a walk around most software development companies, startups, construction firms and other businesses that employ engineers, developers, database experts and other technology-types and you’ll see an overwhelming percentage of males working there. Studies have shown that Google, Yahoo! HP and other large tech firms have disproportionate numbers of males vs females working at their companies. They all lament the lack of women in the industry and promise to do more. Tens of millions are being invested in programs for young girls to learn tech. But is this really necessary? Can we admit that maybe, just maybe, most women would rather not be a tech geek? That the technology industry isn’t so special or even that attractive?
According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, four of the ten most popular Masters degrees taken by men in 2011-12 (Electrical/Electronics/Communications Engineering, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Computer and Information Sciences) were what I’d call technology focused. For women, there were none. Both genders took about an equal amount of business-related degrees. But most graduate degrees taken by women leaned more towards education, nursing, social work and counselling. Is this a leftover from the past? No. It’s likely because many women, per a recent Pew Research Center report, choose to be stay at home moms and these careers offer more flexibility than the typical technology job. Are they better mothers than the women who do spend more time at work? No. But more just prefer to make that choice. A choice.
Were women excluded from taking technology degrees? Was there some barrier of entry? Does our college system discriminate against female engineering applicants? Quite the contrary. In fact, most college admissions teams work hard not to discriminate amongst their candidates and do their best to show the highest level of diversity among the students taking their programs. Girls are taught math and science along with boys from an early age. My daughter and her friends followed the same path as my sons. They had every chance to choose a technology focus if they wanted. But the science, math and engineering clubs at the high school they attended were still predominantly made up of boys, not girls.
Another recent study found that boys in the U.S. continue to score higher than girls in math and sciences. But the study identifies a few underlying reasons for this, including a lack of confidence, parental influence or girls just being “more fearful of making mistakes.” Some may argue that boys get preferential treatment while in school and maybe that’s also true in some cases. But with my own eyes I watched my kids and their friends grow up in an environment where the technical education provided to both boys and girls was the same. Girls were encouraged as much as boys to take Advanced Placement math and science courses. They had every opportunity to go tech. And in the end, most I know chose not to. This was their choice. I don’t think that girls in the U.S. have less opportunities to study technology than boys do. I think it’s a different reason.
The real reason why there are so fewer women in tech isn’t because of discrimination, harassment or unequal pay (although like I said these factors do exist and need to be fixed). The real reason is that most women clearly aren’t as interested in technology-related work as men are. It’s a choice. And for whatever reasons, more women seem to choose other fields. Can we give women a little more respect for their ability to make their own choices? For those that do have in interest in writing code, building systems and becoming database experts there are as many opportunities available to them in this country as men if that’s what they want to do.
Instead of wringing its hands over the lack of women in technology and investing millions to change a situation that may not need to be so serious a problem, perhaps the technology industry should instead be devoting its resources towards making the industry more equal for those that do work there and providing better educational opportunities for minorities and lower income kids – male and female. Young women in the U.S. have a choice whether they want to get into technology. Most choose not to. Unfortunately, many other kids in this country do not yet have that luxury.