On the “Problem” of Women in Tech

By Michelle Drumm
February 5, 2014
computer-girls

Commerce Kitchen’s ownership team is primarily women (3 out of 4 of us). We do our best to encourage women in tech spheres. We support Lady Coders and Women Who Code when we can. We try our best to interview at least one woman every time we have an open position.

We understand that diverse teams are almost always more productive and more creative and we really want that goodness baked into our company. At the same time, all of our developers are men. We’ve had lady devs, and we’ve extended job offers to others.

But the fact of the matter is that currently our dev team is not just male dominated; it’s all men.

Seriously. What gives?

I know a lot of people think this is a cop out, but hiring awesome developers is freaking hard, and hiring women developers is even harder. Inexplicably, between 1985 and 2010, the percentage of comp sci grads that were women dropped from 37% to just 18%. SAT-taking teen girls reported a 20% interest in an engineering/tech field in 2001.In 2006, that number dropped to 12%.

The list goes on and on. I was going to make some fancy graphs to convey some of the data in a meaningful way, but really, this about sums it up:

Women in Tech Graphic

There are tons of theories as to why women don’t pursue careers in tech at the same rate that men do, and many of them are backed by lots of data and great research. Others are anecdotal and appalling.

We can blame education. We can blame obnoxious dudes. We can even blame the work itself – Harvey Mudd’s president, Maria Klawe, summed it up this way: “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.”

And it’s that last one that really sticks in my craw. Not interesting? I think we have a perception problem here, people. I’ll admit to being the nerd kid that got sent off to computer camp when everyone else was learning archery and horseback riding (I already knew how to do both of those!), but come on. Not interesting?!

Teaching girls to code

Last year, I talked with Katie Weiss of the Boulder Chapter of Women Who Code, and she had this to say:

“We tell girls who may have good math/science scores in school to go into business or liberal arts because they can communicate, write, talk to people – even though they may also have a high aptitude for something like programming; and we tell men to go into science/engineering fields if they show the slightest aptitude for it. It’s like we’re pushed out of computer science programs because people think our skills are more needed elsewhere, but we really need those skills here, too.”

Programmers aren’t 100% anti-social sweaty dudes coding in their mom’s basement while swilling Mountain Dew (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Coding is a creative endeavor, and code isn’t written for computers – it’s written for the people that use computers. But a job in programming isn’t even all about the code.

women-who-code

As Katie suggests, we need people people who are also great coders. If we just funnel the socially awkward into tech careers, we’re really screwing ourselves over! And please know – I’m not saying that men are socially awkward and women are socially amazing. But I think Katie’s right in that we have a bias in how we coach young people.

If you’re a little dorky and a boy, maybe you should program. If you’re a little socially awkward and a girl – we don’t know what to do with you. Sorry!

A while ago I had an interesting conversation with an aspiring developer – a guy who had spent most of his time post-graduation from an elite liberal arts college as an elementary school teacher.

I want this guy to learn how to code. A lot. Know why? Because he has people skills. He has worked with the General Public – with parents and their children, for crying out loud. He’s got a service orientation, knows how to talk with and persuade people, he’s charming, and he’s used to coming up with unique solutions to peculiar and hard problems. And as an employer of developers, that’s what I want.

I want someone who can code beautifully not even though they’re clever and creative and people-oriented, but precisely because they are those things.

Did you catch that? I think a career in elementary education is a suitable stepping-stone for a career in tech. I’m a former librarian and I used that career as a jumping off point for a career in tech. The skills required in both fields – teaching and librarianship, both women-dominated fields – are the skills I’m desperate to find in good coders.

Baby programmer

If women aren’t coming to tech because they think the work isn’t interesting, then we’re not doing a great job of explaining tech career options to young women.

The things that make a career in business or teaching appealing to women can apply equally to a career in technology. Problem solving. Communicating. Educating. Sharing. Check, check, check and check.

Coders just happen to do that all in addition to writing code. Just like librarians do all that in addition to hanging out around books all day.

The CK ownership team has a DU, Wesleyan and Reed College education; we’ve got Art History, Music, American Lit, and Religious Studies backgrounds. We’ve all worked in service industries, and we’re all people people (though some of us are more extroverted than others!). Our team is made up of bartenders and biologists, musicians and teachers, historians and artists, and, admittedly, the occasional born-and-bred computer geek.

Commerce Kitchen's Owners

Commerce Kitchen’s owners, looking surly.

I’ve worked in libraries, universities, bookstores, naturopathic medical colleges, and even a bar of dubious repute. And you know what? This is hands down the most interesting place I’ve ever worked – in part because of the nature of the work, and in part because of the motley crew we employ.

Me, as a freshman at Reed.

Me, as a freshman at Reed.

This weekend, I’ll be facilitating a panel discussion on “Women in Tech” at my alma mater, Reed College, for an event put on by the “Center For Life After Reed” (a department that would be called Career Services at any other college).

Reed students and alums (a.k.a. Reedies) tend to skew heavily academic (the tiny campus has produced 31 Rhodes Scholars – the second highest number for a liberal arts college), and the event, Reed Working Weekend, is an attempt to give Reedies a glimpse of what non-academic careers look like.

Part of my goal is to make sure that these exceptionally bright women know that if they choose a career in technology, they won’t be forsaking that beautiful and intense liberal arts education; they’ll just be using it in a different way than maybe they’d planned.


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