Women in technology: What are the real issues?

It looks like I’m going to be running a panel discussion on Women in Technology at Web 2.0 Expo Europe. I’ve often steered clear of discussions about gender roles in the technology sector because they are so rarely constructive. It’s obvious that women are under-represented in tech, at conferences, in media coverage, etc. And it’s also obvious that the reasons why women are under-represented are complex, and aren’t going to be untangled by one panel discussion or one blog post.

So how can we make this discussion different? How can we have a discussion that counts? What sort of things are worth highlighting?

There are a few issues that I’ve stumbled upon lately that I think might be relevant:

Are these threads worth teasing out? What else do we need to look at to understand not just what’s going on, but what to do about it? How can we get really pragmatic about an issue that is very emotive and sometimes contentious?

UPDATE: I’ve been pointed in the direction of this post from Rain about the discussion she lead at BarCamp London 5 about gender (scroll about halfway down). The discussion included many anecdotes, which I summarise here:

  • Men seem to get nudged along the career path in a way that women don’t. Women rarely seem to get the key roles – or the keynotes – that men do.
  • Women are often made to feel inferior to their colleagues, even if they are as knowledgeable. This manifests as things like not being included in conversations.
  • Women are ignored when they are present at events: photographers don’t take photos of them, and the conference T-shirts don’t come in women’s sizes.
  • Women should blog more and be more visible.

The final point about the ghettoisation of women, and the attendant internalisation of misogyny, is one that deserves a whole section to itself. Now, it’s important to acknowledge that not all women are the same. Some women feel much more comfortable in large groups of their own gender, and some women do not. Some women actually feel more comfortable in large groups of men, and I suspect these are the ones that do best in the tech industry and at tech conferences. (And Rah! for them! We should celebrate these women, not pillory them.)

I grew up in an environment that was, in many ways, split strongly along gender lines. My family was very male – lots of male cousins – but my Mum worked in an almost exclusively female environment. I was frequently exposed to single gender groups and particularly to some very large groups of women (1000+). I’ve come to believe that single gender groups are inherently unhealthy: Men get over-testosteroney and women get catty. The groups with the healthiest dynamics are evenly balanced mixed-gender groups.

The aversion to large groups of women that I developed through my childhood and teenage years is one reason I’m not keen on conferences such as BlogHer or events like the Girl Geek Dinner (and yes, I know that men do attend both). Maybe that’s just my problem and I need to get over it. But there’s another aspect to this – if women only associate with women, where are they going to get the experience of walking into large groups of men and maintaining their sense of self, their confidence, and their self-belief?

I know that the idea of women-focused events is that women understand each other, and can learn from each other, take risks in a safe environment and that this will boost their confidence. But that can only ever go so far, even if it’s true. I personally find that someone’s past experience of life is a better indicator of how much they will understand me than their gender. There are plenty of men out there who totally empathise with me and many women who do not.

Like anything in life, the more you do of something, the more you practise something, the better you get at it. Public speaking, for example. Or presenting to a group of men. Or putting yourself forward for talks or key roles at work. The only way you improve your confidence in what are, frankly, some quite difficult situations is by doing them even if they scare the crap out of you.

Most of my life has been characterised by the feeling that I am just one step away from being found out as a fraud. I am not a fraud, however. I am damn smart, I have great experience in my field of expertise – indeed, I am an expert – and I am more than capable of taking on any man on his territory and winning. Yet the feeling of inadequacy still lurks just underneath the surface. Hanging out with lots of women at a conference isn’t going to help me because it doesn’t treat the core problem.

What’s going to help me is learning how to promote myself, how to do marketing, how to put myself forward and blow my own trumpet – all things that society seems to prefer women not to do. And once I’ve learnt a few techniques, the next step is to put them into practice. I can only learn to work confidently in a room of men twice my age with four times my self-belief is to get out there and get on with it. No man is going to give me a break just because I have two X chromosomes.

There are plenty of ways in which the less enlightened members of the male species act, deliberately or unconsciously, against the interests of the women around them. And there are plenty of men who work hard to combat the misogyny they see around them. But if women self-ghettoise, I don’t think they are doing themselves any favours in terms of their own personal development and they risk alienating their male allies.

Ultimately, the issue of gender is not just about men’s reactions and perceptions, and it’s not just about women’s lack of self-confidence. It’s about the complex web of societal, business and personal expectations that conspire – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – to prevent women from fulfilling their potential. It’s a complicated issue and so we need to treat it as such and try to understand the inherent nuance.

11 thoughts on “Women in technology: What are the real issues?

  1. On female role models, early in my career I approached a woman who was one of the most impressive female executives I had encountered in my early business travels. I asked her straight up if she would consider being a mentor to me… just basically to be available if I had a sticky gender-related or generic business problem I had to resolve. She agreed, somewhat reluctantly at first– not certain of my motives. Over the years, I was very careful to respect this professional advice and never abused the privilege (but asking her for direct favors). We eventually became friends, and she helped me immeasurably with various growth spurts I encountered along the way professionally and personally.

    I offer this personal trip down memory lane to suggest that other women should do the same. It would be lovely if there were actually a formalized mentoring program where experienced and beginner female professionals could connect. Just my .02. Good luck with the panel and will look forward to resulting blog post or report.

  2. correction: NOT asking her for direct favors, that is.

  3. Brilliant articles you’ve found there! I definitely think there needs to be more positive female role models… but for both women *and* men. A lot of the issues women face have to do with certain men’s behaviour towards and feelings about women. I don’t know *any* women who think they ‘can’t do the job’, but have known a few men who honestly do think that women are inferior.

    We can do well at school, get a good degree at uni, work incredibly hard at our jobs, but if the men – and sometimes women- ‘in charge’ don’t think women are up to the job then we’re in for a tough time. My hope is that the more well-rounded women in roles of authority there are, the more both men and women accept them there…

    Which reminds me of the female boss I had once who wouldn’t renew my contract because she didn’t think women with kids should work…

    Yea. Girl power…

  4. One of the most interesting studies I read a long while ago talks about how if there is a man and woman together in a room whom you’re speaking to, you are more likely to look at the male and address the male in conversation rather than the female. (Wish I can find the link again, but this was truly years ago).

    As a woman myself, I realised I was doing the same out of sheer habit – something in the programming of our upbringing make all of us look to the man for authority, confirmation and affirmation. I now actively and consciously correct it and make sure I address both men and women equally, but it’s fascinating how deep the stereotypes go and how equally they affect all of us, regardless of male and female.

    I’ve been digging for the podcast of a panel run by Stephanie Sullivan called “What Women Need To Succeed” which I think would be of interest and relevance. Here’s a link to the session description: http://2008.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels_schedule/?action=show&id=IAP060527 . No podcast though …

  5. I recently spoke on a related theme, women in Web communities, and brought data showing how on a large community platform (eBay Italy in this case) women tend to have the lead in the more “community-like” roles (answering other members’ questions as volunteers in the Answer Center), while men still lead by far in using the platform to make money (PowerSellers are mostly men). The platform provides a level playing field, which is quite gender-blind, but men and women apparently choose to engage in it in different ways. It reminds me of that often-quoted statistic (even if I can never find the source) about women working well over 50% of the hours worked by everybody worldwide, but earning only 10% of worldwide income and owning 1% of worldwide assets.

    So I wonder if there is a similar self-selection effect at work in more strictly technological pursuits. Maybe worth teasing out?

    I also stumbled upon the recent Harvard Business Review article on MMORPGs called “Leadership’s Online Labs”. If MMORPGs make such good training grounds for future leaders, and MMORPG players spend an average of 22 hours a week in their game, and 85% of them are male, are young women cutting themselves out of a leadership opportunity?

  6. LivePaola, you remind me of something I read recently:

    Why female business owners are less successful but just as satisfied

    “The proportion of businesses owned by women is on the increase in many countries. These female-run firms tend to be less successful in financial terms than businesses run by men, and yet limited evidence suggests female business owners are just as satisfied with their careers as their male counterparts – a phenomenon dubbed: “the paradox of the contented female business owner”.”

    Maybe we are looking at the wrong thing? Maybe this is about happiness and satisfaction than like-for-like equivalency? Or maybe that’s a cop-out…

  7. As a male in technology – and a feminist – I sympathise.

    One thing struck me at a recent MobileMonday in London. There were a high proportion of women. Maybe not 50:50, but more than I’m accustomed to seeing. Indeed, the chair was a woman.

    However, all the questions were asked by men. I don’t recall seeing a single woman put up her hand.

    What bothers me is that, in the drinks session afterwards, all the women I spoke to had interesting and insightful questions about the event.

    Does it take just one woman to ask a question at these events to get the ball rolling? Do women feel less inclined then men to start a rambling question?

    It does bother me that more women don’t put themselves forward in situations like that but – and I’m Devil’s Advocating here – is it because they work better in the background?

    I don’t think that’s the case – but I think they think it is…

    “Most of my life has been characterised by the feeling that I am just one step away from being found out as a fraud.” Don’t Panic! That’s exactly the way I feel. I think a lot of people do…

    Terence – I reads Dworkin sometimes – Eden

  8. Suw, I have managed men and women over the last 20 years in 3 countries, and have found – as a generalisation and as Terence above notes – that women of equal or even higher ability tend not to step forward as much.

    The result is that they seem less “present” in many situations, and as even the most insightful managers’ time is limited they will tend to hand off to those who “seize the day”. (By the way, this issue applies as well to less assertive but very capable men)

    Why this is I don’t fully know. I can hazard some guesses, but in my view this is one of the main things that prevents women (in general) from reaching their full potential in current organisation structures.

    One could argue with some justification that the current structures are wrong for women, but that is a different discussion.

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  11. HI, I am glad that you will cover the topic of gender diversity in the technical world.we submitted to Webexpo 2.0 a full programme to tackle the issue, with a keynote, a workshop, a dinner and a network event where a lot of female rolmodels would participate. There was no budget, so maybe next year!!

    We at thenextwomen have done such a network event at thenextweb conference and at Picnic., we did a breakfast and brainstorm event. A gathering of women at male dominated events. These were huge successes and most women liked it to be together for 1/2 day of the conference. We have set up thenextwomen, the online magazine for female internet heroes to profile women led, founded and invested companies. The female techcrunch and FT!!

    Good luck, on October 24 I will hold a panel at HP in Amsterdam with the same issue: women in a man’s world it can work!!

    Like to tak to you.

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