There's been a lot of attention this year to the sorry state of women in technology fields. But maybe we're missing the real issue.
It's true that women remain stuck at about 30 percent of the technology workforce, not much different than in 1990, when I as a young reporter working at the IEEE did a big news story reporting on the National Science Foundation's call to action to solve the problem of women's underrepresentation in computer science and engineering. Even in those early days of populist computing, there were fears that women's participation was declining.
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Now, it's worse, with the percentages of women working in engineering down from 21.3 percent in 2003 to 17.1 percent in 2011, according to the National Science Foundation. Women computer scientists and mathematicians dropped from 28.8 to 25.0 percent in the same period. By comparison, women's participation rose slightly in all other professional and management positions.
Despite all that, there are signs that women may finally be joining the tech industry. But for a reason that should worry men: The nature of tech jobs may be changing to favor women's strengths and interests, while many of those that tap into men's strengths and historical base may be fading away, replaced by the cloud and other forms of automation.
That could very well be the future, as I explain later in this post. But today, if anything, it's arguably worse for women in tech, not better, than it was in the mid-1980s. Midcareer, women leave the profession at twice the rate of men, for example. Few make it into the top echelons of either IT ranks (as CIOs) or tech vendor ranks (as CEOs, CTOs, or CIOs). They're also quite rare in the VC community that feeds tech startups and the Silicon Valley economy that draws in aspiring geeks.
I'm beginning to think that women have been explicitly voting with their feet by not getting into tech and by leaving it more often than their male colleagues. If they wanted to, they would go into tech. After all, the cultural barriers that were the focus in 1985 on encouraging girls to enter professions like science, law, engineering, and finance are much reduced today. You see that reality in other professions: Women are more than half of law school and science graduates today, and women have made huge gains in testosterone-laden professions like law enforcement and the military. Sexism of course still exists, but nowhere at the same levels of 30 years ago as is clear when you look at historically male professions like the military, policing, and politics.
There's no question there are male-dominated professions, just as there are female-dominated ones. But advocacy researchers such as the Anita Borg Institute and the American Association for University Women report that gender mixing is more normal today, and the domination of one gender over another has diminished in most fields.
Yet in tech, women leaders continue to be novelties, and questions on handling maternity leave become major discussion topics, as Yahoo's Marissa Mayer learned. Not much has changed since Marimba's Kim Polese was the "it girl" of Silicon Valley in 1999, to use a recent Forbes story's sexist description of her. Can you imagine a serious story calling Square's equally photogenic Jack Dorsey the "it boy" of Silicon Valley?
"As a woman, I know I have to work twice as hard as any man to be taken seriously," says Carole Schlocker, a tech recruiter at iSpace.com, echoing a line made famous in 1963 by Charlotte Whitton, then mayor of Ottowa, Canada. "All women know this," Schlocker adds. Michelle McKenna, CIO of the National Football League, has found her tech career rewarding, but it's taken effort to succeed. "Getting the invitation or a chance to 'push your way in' is the challenge."