Issues for Women in Technology – SQL University

Okay class,  I know it’s Friday and you’re already looking out the window, but let’s get through one more SQL University WIT lecture before we hit the lakes/beaches/yardwork.  Please hand Monday’s homework forward and close your textbooks.    

First, did everyone enjoye Professor Jes’ WIT History lesson? I thought it was a marvelous overview, and I intend to recommend her to the board for her work.  This brings us up to the present day.  As we discussed Monday, there are many fewer women in technology than men, on the order of 4 to 1.      

2009 "Employed persons" report, from US Bureau of Labor Statistics
2009 US Bureau of Labor Statistics Report (click img for full report)


 First, I’d like to get a few firestorm issues out of the way, right up front.  We don’t have enough space here to debate each of these individually, but I will present my opinion briefly, and open the floor up to future discussions:   

  • “Men are better at science and logic than women.”  Many studies, and my own experience, have ruled this out as a factor.  We’ve seen both men and women do many brilliant (and many exceptionally stupid) things personally and professionally.  I tend to attribute mass differences between ethnic, gender, or cultural groups to the myriad of influences that are societal, environmental, and economic in nature.
  • “We need to stop throwing blame and take personal responsibility. Each woman is in charge of her destiny; do it or don’t.”  While I am a huge advocate of personal responsibility, I think that it’s too simple an answer for big issues like this. When the playing field is completely even, the last vestiges of bigotry have evaporated, and we generally agree on the causes and effects involved, personal responsibility then becomes the only issue.

 As in all things, there are many contributing factors, but the primary causes are generally seen as the “geek factor”, and the lack of tech exposure and encouragement.     

Geek Factor

There have been numerous articles (here’s one example) that expound on the geek factor, either to support the theory or to dismantle it.  The basic idea is that computer science is genrally seen as the domain of the nerd / geek / Star Wars fan / pocket protector-sporting dweeb, and that this fundamentally discourages young women from the field more than it does men.  We can definitely make a case that nerd culture has grown up around and supports the technology industry, and this may be offputting to some women who don’t see themselves in that way. While some argue that similarly nerdy fields have not seen a similar decline in the ratio of women to men, my personal belief is that the geek culture has been more fully embraced and iconified than in, for example, aerospace engineering.  Which, by the way is ACTUAL ROCKET SCIENCE1, which is cool.     


In my opinion, this is one, but not the only cause of the lack of women in technology.    

Tech Exposure and Encouragement

I’ve plenty of articles and blogs (including one from this week’s star pupil Matt Velic) that include stories about girls being discouraged from interest in a particular career path.  I think this is fading, but not faded.  What we’re moving into is an era of tech exposure and encouragement. Computer culture is everywhere, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an 11 year old girl who doesn’t at least know what Facebook is (much less the Internet).  But then, politics is all around us too, but how many girls in middle and high school consider a career path that leads to running for Congress?  

When I was in school, I didn’t have a clear idea of what jobs were available. TV taught me that you could be a doctor, lawyer, secratary, manager, pilot, or police officer. But what did all those OTHER people do?  I had no idea, and it all sounded boring anyway.  But my older brother played with computers – he took them apart and put them together, made them do cool things and had neat games for them. And at school I could get into programming classes, so I did.  I did cool stuff there!  We wrote little apps in Pascal that let you interact with the computer, made the computer do math for you, or even displayed a really cool graphic (one year I did an illustration from Peter Pan, the next year a detail of the starship Enterprise).  That was exciting, and it was great exposure for me.  

Technology, and computers specifically, is a wonderfully lucrative field.  Most DBAs I know make 1.5 to 2 times the national salary average.  It’s also a highly flexible career – one set of skills feeds in to and transfers, with some effort, into another – and though IT has its down times, there are usually good jobs to be had.  AND it’s about problem solving and potentially making a real difference for your company or organization. In short, it’s a good field. Why wouldn’t we want to encourage middle and high school boys and girls to get into IT?  

Wrapping Up

 I’ve talked myself out of time, and we haven’t even started on the next two bullet points from Monday: 

  • How do these numbers hurt the industry? How will more womein in technology improve the industry?
  • How can we make technology a more viable career for women?
  • I’ll point you to a wonderful blog by Shelley Powers entitled So What? for some perspective on the first question. 

    As for the second, I think that we’re off to a good start, but we need more.  We need to  

    • Pulicize the IT industry and the women who adore it
    • Continue with and expand science and technology programs in schools, in volunteer organizations, on TV (let’s hear it for Mythbusters and other programs like it, for makin science & tech cool!)
    • Encourage friends, family, and children to pursue interests in technology
    • Keep talking, and thinking!

    Class dismissed, and enjoy your weekend! 

    -Jen McCown  

    Further Reading

    •  Wiki: Women in Computing
    • Project Alice – Page links to presentation, video produced by Microsoft Research “The goal of the Alice project is to provide a positive first experience with computer programming (currently the most common gateway to computer science), to middle school students through college freshman.”
    • Gender & the geek factor: why don’t women do IT?  – Australian study. “CONCLUSION: It is a major issue that the perception in young people is that girls do not do IT. While it has been documented that some intervention programs in Australia are producing positive results in attracting more women into courses, they need a continual infusion of labour and capital to continue. Currently there are many disparate groups working to the same end in Australia, but often in isolation. The image of IT needs to be addressed via the media as well as education. It is important that the IT discipline be portrayed as gender neutral with the same status as Law and Medicine. The student experiences with IT need to be closely monitored and evaluated, and a united effort, not a ‘scattergun’ approach, is needed to improve the image beyond individual institutions. According to current growth rates Growth Rates it will be many years before a semblance of gender equality in IT is achieved, if ever. Sustained research and quality interventions are required at a societal level to ensure that the female voice is heard in this discipline.”
    • OReilley collection of blogs on Women in Tech
    • Men Smarter than Women, Scientist Claims – A LiveScience article that presents one scientist’s conclusions, and rebuttals. Interesting links from there, too.
    • Lynn Langit’s blog – She’s a DE for the MSDN team, SQL BI author, and Microsoft DigiGirlz Organizer…she teaches kids programming!

    1 Now that class is over, you can watch YouTube. It’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?

    9 thoughts on “Issues for Women in Technology – SQL University”

    1. In my college yearbook, I wrote, “My dream is to be a computer scientist(‘s wife). It was a joke in reference to my boyfriend then. But that was all it was–a joke. It wasn’t based on any limitation or impossibility (imagined or otherwise). I knew I could be anyone I wanted to be. I knew I had choices and possibilities. 4 to 1…that’s really surprising. I’ve always taken my choices as a woman for granted–so thanks for raising awareness.

    2. The importance of exposure and encouragement is so important. I recently attended the Women of Vision awards presented by the Anita Borg Institute. Three extremely accomplished technical women were honored there and each of them credited their parents for introducing them to technology and encouraging them to follow their interests into the field.

    3. You hit it on the head when you said, “When I was in school, I didn’t have a clear idea of what jobs were available.” Exactly. No one does—really, and unfortunately, our education system is dependent upon a pre-determined outcome unless something foreign is introduced. In your case the foreign agent was your brother working with computers. If this did not exist then what would you have been pushed toward by the system? Teaching? Librarian? The dreaded ambiguous “home economics” because that’s what a lot of ‘girls’ do? How wrong is that? Now I’m a man, and a librarian. The pre-disposition to librarians are “old ladies with hair in buns.” However, my foreign agent was a professor who introduced me to library science and information retrieval. I organize and correlate data. I create/manage websites, HTML coding, and of course databases. Anyone can do anything based upon their skill level. The gender specificity that some try to impose nonsense. The trick is properly exposing people, no matter the age but high/middle school kids especially, to enough items so that they discover skills they didn’t know they had. How does one know if they’re interested in any particular area unless they’re exposed to it. That is the tragedy I think. Men as well as women having their self-discovery limited in this manner. This was an awesome post!

    4. Janice: You’re welcome!

      Denise: “each of them credited their parents for introducing them to technology and encouraging them to follow their interests into the field.” I’m not at all surprised; we’re all more likely to have knowledge of, and be interested in, the things we were exposed to as kids. I suspect this is why a large part of the WIT movement is involved with children’s tech programs!

    5. wnylibrarian,

      Thanks! I’m always fascinated how we either manage to or manage to miss slipping into a particular groove career-wise. I have a friend who’s currently struggling with this exact problem. She’s intelligent, personable, and wildly talented in several areas, but can’t seem to find the right place…I’ll send here here, I bet your reply resonates.

      (Btw, she worked for a time as a librarian, too.)

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