Bye-bye, boy’s club? Why the new IT may be a woman’s world

A lot of hand-wringing over female participation in tech may be moot as the nature of tech changes

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.

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 , 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, 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.”

Why women have avoided the tech industry

Maybe women aren’t avoiding tech because they think they’re not good enough; rather, they may see teach as a poor fit for them. Women today have choices, and there are better options for many of them than joining a tech culture whose characteristics rub many women the wrong way. They’re using their talents elsewhere.

There are several possible reasons that women would recognize tech as an unappealing profession for them.

It’s a boy’s club, with a large proportion of outcast boys

These men’s societal development seems arrested at age 13, they dress and smell like bums, they obsess over game-playing (both literally and in Silicon Valley’s casino economy), and they live to work in artificial constructs rather than engage in the wider world. Let’s face it, a large portion of the tech industry—especially in the startup portion—bears more than a striking resemblance to “Lord of the Flies.” Those who fit the stereotype are a minority in most organzations, but they’re a visible minority. They’re portrayed sympathetically in TV shows like the “Big Bang Theory” and “Freaks and Geeks” and unsympathetically in books “Accidental Empires” and “Hatching Twitter,” but in both cases the portrayal is offputting to many women.

The proportion of such “outcast boys” varies from sector to sector, and it seems most concentrated in Silicon Valley tech startups, while it is much rarer in government agencies. Lorrie Sheets, an IT manager for behavioral health at the County of San Mateo in California, has worked mostly in government IT but took a foray into a “well-funded” private Silicon Valley firm in 2004. “The language used, jokes made, and other comments would never be tolerated where I am now.”

“Some folks will never grow up, and the tech field breeds that sort of an environment, particularly below the management and leads level,” notes Sandra, a technology manager at a Tribune Co. division who asked me to withhold her full name, title, and division so as not to upset her colleagues. “As females, I think we take it with a ‘no harm, no foul attitude,’ but it does not make the field attractive to females.”

But she admits that the stereotype of the help desk and development “nerds”—where they’re provided junk food and games, and allowed “way too casual dress”—is “attractive to men because it presents a laid-back, casual ‘play at work’ environment, in which these males would do it all day even with long hours.” That’s free labor many employers love, of course, but it turns off women who typically have more outside interests and are expected to handle family needs more than men.

The guys don’t have to be outcast boys to create a distinctive boy’s club—different facets of IT appeal to them more than women, which sets the context for the work, notes Sheets. “Before we hired a CIO, most of the conversations we had within the health department were about cross-departmental projects like enterprise master person index and data sharing. Since I got a new manager who is a man and since we hired a new CIO who is a man, the focus has shifted to more talk about hardware and networks. I think of those areas as more male. I want hardware to work and not to spend a lot of time on it—not so true for the men I know.”

“Why is tech so male-dominated?” asks Sheets rhetorically. “Because it’s fun. Because it has hardware that does cool stuff and is updated a lot, and there’s lots of problem-solving. Lots of competition—good-natured and no so good-natured—within the industry.”

Tech work often has little external value

Men and women are different from each other (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated equally, of course). One key difference, speaking generally, is that women place greater value than men on work that helps other people, and they are more attracted to work where the results clearly benefit other people.

By contrast, men place greater value on work that rewards themselves directly, such as solving a challenge or performing a task better than before. Much of what technologists do in their day-to-day work is the latter.

Tech is perceived as a gung-ho, hacking culture

Another facet of women is that they tend to be detail-oriented and more programmatic in their problem-solving thinking than men. Leaping before you look, throwing things against a wall to see what sticks, just trying something to see what happens—that mentality is more comfortable for the typical man than the typical woman. That reality may give men an edge in startups, where both the probem and the solution aren’t at all clear—and make women look elsewhere for work.

Tech often doesn’t value “soft skills”

Most people will recognize this issue: Assertive men are go-getters, assertive women are bitches. And women’s propensity to consider emotions and feelings—those empathetic “soft skills”—is often treated as time-wasting diversions from getting stuff done. Women tend to be more empathetic than men and pay more attention to the affects on people—not just on the results as previoulsy mentioned, but on the process itself.

This is a big issue for Michele Chubirka, a security professional who recently blogged on the issue. She tells me it pains her to see “the devaluation of soft skills. Or the assumption that because I spend some time writing, talking, and speaking about soft skills, I’m not as good technically as a man. No, it just means I think soft skills and emotional intelligence are as important as technical skills.”

Where women succeed in tech today

The typical areas where women succeed are the business systems analyst, project manager, and other management positions, notes Schlocker. “We have more of the skills that make us successful in this area: Strong organizational skills, communications, and the ability to understand what a business client needs.”

Sandra agrees: “Women generally seem to fit better and excel in roles where organizational and interactivity skills combined with structure are part of the job. The technical task would be a means to the end done in an orderly manner with consideration to the audience, and it can be worked by a cohesive team if that is what is required—not a one-man show.”

By contrast, infrastructure-oriented tech jobs are hard for women, Schlocker notes: “It is 24/7, so it offers no flexibility. Flexibility is key for women, and the women who chose careers with less flexibility have to work even harder as they balance career and family issues. That is why I believe you don’t see more women in infrastructure. Also, it is more of a ‘man’s world’ and therefore much more difficult for a woman to be accepted—too many bad sexist jokes and other things that make a woman uncomfortable.”

Of course, there are women in tech who have joined the industry by choice and thrive in it—as with anything human, there’s a range of individuals, so generalizing is dangerous. Still, the typical woman avoids tech and has been doing so for decades, even as the typical woman has actively sought entry into many other male-dominated fields.

So do we just accept that the tech industry is not appealing to most women and move on? Maybe. The tech industry does a lot of amazing things the way it’s currently constituted, so why mess with it?

On the other hand, women bring in different approaches that are now less exploited in the male-oriented tech industry. If you believe that data science is a key engine of technology, thanks to the big data movement, you need more women involved in the profession. If you believe that person-facing tech—the “consumerization of IT” notion—is the right approach to tech design and deployment, you need more women invoved in the profession. If you believe that coopetition is a better model in a technology world of interconnected systems, you need more women involved in the profession. The NFL’s McKenna notes, “Women have very interesting perspectives on how to solve technology challenges such as consumerization of IT, mobility, and collaboration.”

Ironically, McKenna has found that although there’s a desire to include more women in positions of leadership, the system works against that desire: “I understand that boards of directors who have more than one woman have found great increases in board collaboration and risk management, yet women still lag men significantly in board seats. ... They really want women, and technology experience is highly valued, but without [prior] board experience you must be a former CEO of CFO, not a CIO. Opinions like this are why women don’t enter and stick with technology.”

She can’t help but wonder if being a woman in tech has limited her career opportunities: “I love what I do. But I have to wonder had I stuck with finance, surely I would have made it CFO and would be a candidate for board seats.”

Why women may end up the majority in tech anyhow

For years, there’ve been efforts to encourage girls to consider careers in tech, with everything from “bring your daughter to work” days and girl-oriented code-a-thons. They haven’t worked, likely because interested women could quickly see that tech didn’t feel like a good fit.

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