Women in Tech

Women in tech: the tortured topic of late, with tech companies floating around statistics trying to prove just how much they’ve increased diversity among their employees. Then there are the bros who don’t get it and probably never will, having been encouraged throughout school, coddled by ego and socialized into toxic male-centered careers some claim women aren’t designed to be good in—fields women have a hard time entering and staying in because of the blatant sexism, harassment and intolerance created through culture, not inherent to our biology.


Photo: Angelina Jolie in the movie Hackers

These perspectives crowd around a central question: Why are there so few women in tech? I don’t think we’re asking the right question or approaching this as the holistic, cultural problem for which low representation of women in some job fields are merely a symptom. We must recognize and accept for fact how depressed women are in the workforce, whatever the job—from fewer promotions, to the gender wage gap, to those deemed too feminine for men. Women struggle for equal footing and equal recognition of their talents, far and away from jobs traditionally considered by our society as male, and by proxy, much more important.

What is tech?

During the last decade, there has been a push for “more women and girls in tech”, yet there doesn’t seem to be a definitive list or definition of what that means. The acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is the buzzword of choice in trying to answer this question but does little more than further the divide between fields of study traditionally pursued by women—teaching, nursing, childcare—and jobs given higher prestige because they somehow fall under the STEM umbrella of those held by men in high quantities. The US Department of Education touts STEM as education for global leadership.

Rosie the riveter with a circuit board background

Image courtesy of Burlington Telecom

The disservice we do to girls now is to imply the only important or worthy pursuits are in these disciplines which have largely been structured and determined by men in the first place. It implies that the only way we women are going to make progress in the workplace is to bust up male-centric job fields. If a girl has an interest in one of these fields, she must have equal opportunity to pursue a career in it but not at the cost of discounting girls who have interests elsewhere. The economy would crumble if all women were in the narrow set of STEM fields.

How we encourage girls’ interests becomes the crux of this issue. Some men like to say it’s our fault there are fewer women in tech because we just aren’t interested in it. Not true! Most of us weren’t encouraged to explore “tech” interests. As example, I saw recently two shirts that a brother and sister were dressed in: the boy’s said “Future Genius” while his sister’s said “Future Princess.” Really?

What are tech jobs?

“Tech” encompasses many disciplines extending far beyond STEM. We can pursue career paths other than programmer, chemist, circuit board designer, mathematician to be part of tech. I have a Master of Science degree in Information Studies. Most of my peers (80% women) went into the fields of archiving, preservation and librarianship with these science degrees; yet these women are sometimes not viewed as working in tech based on the limited inclusion of STEM which tends to focus on math-centered disciplines.

document getting scanned

Digital preservation. Photo credit: Rebecca Carpenter

We also need millions of teachers in STEM disciplines for children to learn them, yet teaching is still viewed as outside tech and compensated at a much lower rate despite teachers having knowledge arguably equivalent to traditional tech workers. We must broaden our view of what it means to “be in tech” if we’re going to ensure women’s progress in tech.

How do we measure tech inclusion?

It’s interesting when executives release statistics about how the number women working at tech companies is increasing. Did you catch the subtle, disingenuous part of that statement? Increasing the number of women working at tech companies, not necessarily increasing the number women holding technical jobs at these companies. Before the personal computer, I would wager there were more women than men working at IBM because of the male dependency on female secretary pools, receptionists and administrative assistants.

dozens of women at typewriters in a large room

Photo courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

I work at a software company that makes such a claim: Approximately 30% of our workforce is female. The board of directors certainly is, with just three of 10 members being women. The executive leadership team fairs far worse with just one of 13 members being a woman (HR).

There are many tech jobs at non-tech companies often not included in this dissection, and there are many tech jobs beyond IT, R&D and Engineering departments. I started my career as a web developer in the Marketing department. Was I considered a woman working in tech? I also want to mention that the concept of women in tech sometimes gets couched as a “gender equality” benchmark, frequently excluding transgender men and women who are ignored in this dichotomy. When trying to measure inclusiveness, we must remember that the labels we use to describe the problem often complicate it.

What now?

Talk to a woman, right now. Listen to us. Believe what we say about our negative experiences growing up in a divided society with an education system hostel to our pursuits. Stop judging what we want to learn or do by antiquated, gender-specific thinking that discourages us. It’s okay for a girl to want to be a teacher, equally so to studying robotics. If she wants to be an electrician instead of an electrical engineer, tell her we need good tradespeople too.

Is the term UX meaningless?

This week, a video of renowned usability expert Don Norman of the Nielson Norman Group discussing the term “UX” garnered attention when he noted that, in his opinion:

Today, that term has been horribly misused. It’s used by people to say ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites or I design apps’ and they have no clue as to what they’re doing and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app… No! It’s everything. It’s the way you experience the world. It’s the way you experience your life. It’s the way you experience the service… It’s a system that’s everything.”

I’m on the bandwagon here. Nearly every day in my work, I hear someone try to justify his or her decision by claiming that whatever they like or don’t like is hurting or helping the user experience without ever speaking with customers or observing them interact with the organization.

UX has become the go-to scapegoat and savior. We can see this in the progression of how we refer to people who work on websites, going from “webmaster” in the 90s to today’s “user experience designer.” But it doesn’t take much digging to see the numerous customer experiences being developed right now that tenuously adhere to anything approaching universal design.

Interviews, persona development, usability testing, and interaction design continue to take a backseat and are often the first tasks eliminated as projects scope-creep beyond deadlines. It’s rare to find business leads who understand the holistic nature of the user experience and who value finding out what their customers want and how their projects influence the customer’s experience with the entire organization.

I’m hopeful more companies will embrace the true intention of user experience as an end-to-end, ongoing process, not a buzzword.