There are many opinions on why there are so many fewer women working in highly technical IT jobs than men.
Here I’ll take each of the main arguments I’ve heard and summarize it forcefully in my own words–as if it were my own argument. Then I’ll give my own short analysis at the end. The goal is to come away with an improved perspective on the problem.
Women would love to be in deeply technical jobs but they avoid them because they’re discriminated against when they enter them. Competent women programmers or security professionals who show up to random calls are often assumed to be project managers or marketing representatives. Furthermore, there is an ever-present doubt that many male peers have of women in IT they’re interacting with–as if it’s somehow not possible for her to be as good or better than him. Shit-testing is often the result of that skepticism, and it’s horribly corrosive. It causes many women who love the field they’re in to want to leave it.
Women aren’t interested in the technical IT jobs because they often involve separation from people and continuous, sterile puzzle-solving–often under significant stress. Preferences matter, and many (most?) women prefer lower-stress work where they can interact with and help people. If the work is unpleasant for most women, most women won’t want to do it–it’s that simple. If you go to a place that women like to gather, and you ask 100 women if they would like to do what an average programmer does–as a career–most would probably ask you if you were crazy. Furthermore, most women would wonder (either vocally or silently) what was wrong with any woman who did want to do that career.
Programming and other high-paying IT jobs are often unpleasant, and it is men more than women who have been driven to take those types of jobs in order to be respected as the bread-winner. In short, most programming jobs aren’t highly respected or interesting the way the media portrays them, and men are more likely to stick with that type of job because doing unpleasant work for high return has been expected of males (and not women) for tens of thousands of years.
The preference argument is a good one, and it’s valid, but it’s only true because of cultural biasing that takes place at an early age–especially in the United States. Daughters aren’t taught to love STEM: they’re taught to prefer “feminine” activities and careers, like nursing and other types of caregiving. Every commercial on TV selling cleaning supplies has a woman doing the work. Most technical experts in modern culture and media are shown to be male. And women who choose technical fields are secretly considered to be freaks going against the grain. This molds and shapes our young females into being what culture expects of them rather than what they would have become. We must address that before we can speak of their “desires” being the root of the problem.
Many women get into the deeply technical fields but they simply don’t shine because they lack the passion that many more men have for the field. They get into the field because they know it’s good money, or because they were told they couldn’t thrive there and took it as a challenge, but at the end of the day they don’t take the work home with them. They don’t do it in their off time. They don’t live and breathe it like is required to be elite in the field. And people can tell the difference. A team full of dedicated IT folks who see a woman going through the motions, and perhaps getting some advantage due to her gender, may come to develop an understandable distaste for women in tech because they make the incorrect assumption that any women in will be similarly “false”.
I’ve seen many scenarios where a female developer is the strongest in a group, and can’t get an ounce of respect no matter what she does. Male egos flare at needing help from her, and balk at offering help when the team dynamic calls for it. Highly technical women basically have the worst of both worlds: they’re either assumed to be incompetent or are ostracized if they’re clearly superior. Anyone arguing that this type of thing hasn’t happened simply hasn’t had it happen to them.
The “cultural bias” argument is a good one, but it has a major flaw: the cultures that have the highest gender equality, e.g. the Scandinavian countries, have some of the lowest percentages of women in technical jobs. In fact, gender equality and percentage of women in tech are negatively correlated, meaning that in countries where there is severe gender inequality (India, China) there are far more women looking to get into programming type jobs. And conversely, the most evolved countries in terms of gender equality have fewer women wanting to do traditional male jobs, work more hours, etc. What this is pointing towards is a revealing of what women would actually prefer to do–outside of the self-correcting pressure of overcoming decades of anti-women discrimination in the workplace.
Fine, point granted–maybe women don’t like to be in technical jobs as much as men do. And maybe it’s for biological reasons, or maybe it’s cultural: it really doesn’t matter. The indisputable fact is that some women absolutely do love being deeply technical, and if we wish to think ourselves living in any semblance of an evolved society we need to allow them to thrive in those careers just as any man can. So if it’s strange that women are there because most women don’t want to be–tough. Get over it. Most men don’t want to be nurses or midwives, but it wouldn’t be ok for women to treat them like crap if they did. Whatever the hangup, and whatever the reason, the reality is that anyone with the skills should be treated with respect in any profession, so welcome to the 21st century and let’s move on with our lives.
First, I accept that all of these arguments have truth to them. Every single one of them. Much of the failure of our discussion on this important topic comes from believing that one of them being true negates the others. And people have different experiences.
Some women in tech never see so much as a drop of discrimination, and they make the mistake of thinking that the women complaining are delusional or are somehow causing the problem for themselves. Others experience constant friction, glass ceilings, demeaning gender-based challenges of their skills, and overall negativity through no fault of their own.
Those women feel those claiming that they’ve never had an issue are either sticking up for the bully or are somehow broken themselves. And it’s the same for the men. Some are highly evolved types who have worked in environments where the female hackers were not even noticed; they were just another butt in a chair. Others men are stuck in the 50’s somewhere and can’t believe women are out of the house, let alone trying to work with computers.
Virtually every perspective possible on the arguments above actually exists because of the sheer number of combinations of work environments. Some are merit-based but full of bigots. Others are highly biased against women initially, but open up wonderfully once they see the quality of a technical female colleague. Most have some elaborate combination of all the elements above.
But it seems to me that those who are both aware and unbiased should be able to agree on a few things:
- It’s likely, for whatever reason, that fewer women want to be in highly technical fields than men.
- Given that it’s uncommon, it’s normal for both men and women to behave strangely–and sometimes inappropriately–when faced with women in jobs that are so often occupied by men.
- Despite it being a lower percentage, some significant number of women do enjoy and want to pursue a career in technical fields.
- We should acknowledge that socially indoctrinated gender bias is a real issue, and work to identify it where it occurs. If there are natural tendencies toward certain behaviors and interests and careers, so be it, but we should not make the assumption as a culture that all girls will confirm to that norm. We must, as a society, pursue the ideal of allowing people to become what makes them most happy, as guided by their own innate interests and preferences, and we mustn’t wrinkle our noses at where that takes us.
- We need to reject our natural embrace of the naturalistic fallacy, i.e. just because it’s natural to notice and judge and otherwise treat differently women who pursue fields uncommon for their gender doesn’t make it right. We should encourage any and all women who enjoy technical work to enter technical fields, and we must work to eliminate bias and discrimination from the workplace wherever it exists.
If you don’t accept #1 or #2 then you’re likely subscribing to the moralistic fallacy, i.e. the belief that the way things should be is the way things are. This impedes progress. Please stop it. And if you are a denier of #3, #4, or #5 then you’re either highly sheltered, scared by prejudice, or are willfully ignorant. You are part of the problem. Please stop it.
What I take from this exercise is that there are varying interpretations of how we got to where we are. We don’t know exactly why there are more men in IT than women. We don’t know if it’s culture, nature, or some combination of both. But what we cannot disagree on is that there are some women who like IT work, and unless we’re either stupid or inhumane we should do everything in our power to make sure that they are treated with the dignity and respect given to anyone else in their field who does the same work. And as long as we can agree on that point rest of the discussion becomes a bit academic.
1 I did a similar post on gun control a while back, and the positive reaction to it inspired me to do something similar for this debate.