First, Let’s Define the Problem

So, Women in Tech. It’s become a hot topic in the last year. That’s a good thing in many ways. It also means, as happens with most hot topics, that lots of ideas and statistics get thrown around, increasingly willy-nilly and context-free. This is less good, because it tends to make the conversation more heated without producing anything useful as a result, and because it means that while more people can recite depressing stats and thereby convince themselves they’re enlightened, there isn’t actually any deeper understanding of the problem for most.

Which brings me to my next point: which problem, exactly? The real answer of course, is that there are many, and often they’re linked to one another, but far too many articles on the Women in Tech topic recite a litany of statistics (most of which are from studies about women workers in all industries, or write-ups of polls of college students) that relate to a bunch of different problems and then conclude “Tech Hates Women!”

I take issue with this.

I take issue with the notion that the technology industry is profoundly misogynistic, and more so than most other fields. I take issue with the analytical sloppiness that throws together apples, pears, tomatoes and kiwis, and proclaims that all fruits (but not vegetables) are all equally rotten to the core. I also take issue with the fact that way too many of these articles are written by East Coasters who don’t actually work in tech and clearly have a very superficial knowledge of Silicon Valley culture, who are mostly interested in performing the classic journalistic activity of muckraking the current “it” region/industry for clicks.

Now, do women workers in general face bias? Yes, unquestionably. Is the tech industry worse than others? I personally haven’t seen anything that proves this. Could things be better? Absolutely. That’s why it’s good that we’re having the discussion. So let’s do this in the right way. We’re an industry full of very intelligent, analytical people. We can do this.

Let’s Start By Defining Terms

“Women in Tech”. I’m a woman who works at technology-producing companies. I’m not an engineer. I have a modicum of understanding of the technology and products I work on, but I do not design chips or write code. There are also women who are engineers on the user side of IT—they don’t start companies, design chips or write code, but they design and run networks and databases every day. We all face different types of challenges, but the specifics of those challenges are rarely examined. If you’re going to talk about “Women in Tech” seriously, you need to be clear about which group you’re referring to, and apply relevant stats and analysis appropriately.

Related: if you’re using stats from studies about women workers in general to help male techies understand some of the challenges their female co-workers face, great. Say so. But don’t then claim that a general study proves that the tech industry is uniquely discriminatory. That’s intellectually dishonest.

“Tech”. Let’s be clear, VCs are bankers. When we talk about VCs, we’re talking about the financial industry. Yes, some of the big names in venture capital are former technologists. Many more of the rank and file in the VC industry are MBAs, who may or may not have significant experience as technologists. This is not to in any way malign the “tech cred” of VCs. I point this out because people who go into finance—especially the high-risk, high-stakes type of finance that venture capital represents–tend to have rather different personalities than people who really like to spend their time figuring out complex technical challenges. Consequently, the corporate cultures of actual tech companies (not to mention other more sedate sectors where our products are actually used) are mostly rather different from the stories one reads about the VC industry. The more outrageous shenanigans revealed during the Ellen Pao trial are unsurprisingly similar to the kinds of things that came out in the Wall Street class action suits in the ‘90s. The saddening thing is that they’re still going on 20 years later.

So when we are discussing the “tech industry”, are we strictly talking about the companies that make technology? What about companies whose business model makes heavy use of internet technologies, but are selling non-technical products and services (eg Uber, or any number of social retail sites)? It turns out that the number of people who buy and consume technology (corporate IT departments, that is) is much larger than the number of people building and selling it—but more often than not that swath of people, including the women within it, are ignored in the whole “Women in Tech” discussion. There’s less glitz and filthy lucre to be found in corporate IT, so it’s perhaps not exciting to write about, but if you ignore the largest segment of women who work with technology in some fashion, don’t pretend you’re really serious about helping highlight and resolve their challenges. You’re just trolling for clicks.

So, What’s the Problem?

So many to choose from, really. I may write more at length about the below in later posts, but here’s a small sample of the most popular ones—all of which are really a cluster of separate analyses that happen to fall under common headlines:

  • The pipeline problem. The fact that the ratio of women computer science/technology majors is dropping. Or that middle-school girls mostly say they don’t like STEM. These facts are relevant in in very direct ways if you’re discussing “female engineers working in technology-producing companies”. But there are plenty of jobs in technology-producing companies that are not engineering jobs. And there are plenty of IT jobs that do not presume college degrees. The STEM pipeline problem (which is different from a more general managerial pipeline problem) factors in to those latter two segments in very different ways than it does in the first one.
  • Presumption of incompetence. This works *very* differently for those of us in non-technical roles than it does for engineers on either the producer or user side of tech. It also not unique to tech, as all those general studies of women workers consistently show.
  • Pay inequities. There’s one discussion to be had about the games of funding startups. There’s a different one to be had for rank and file workers of any other kind. (And it’s also not unique to tech.) This is where we get into the purported “confidence gap” and other social-psychology analyses of varying seriousness—I can write long screeds on all of these…
  • The leaky pipeline, or why women don’t get to the top. Reams of general research here (see “confidence gap”, US vs other OECD parental leave practices, etc, etc). Specific claims among women *engineers* about being worn down by incompetence presumptions. Again, it’s a different story for women in non-engineering roles, because the “successful” personas for non-engineering roles match up against expectations about female behavior differently. And again—this whole topic is far from unique to tech.
  • Booth babes. Do I like them? No. I don’t know a woman who does. There are even a number of men who genuinely find them annoying. But, ahem, have you ever been to a car show? Or an event in most any other industry? Frankly, tech outclasses most industries in this category. We can get down to Zero booth babes at events. That would be a good number. But let’s not pretend their continued existence is proof of tech’s unique misogyny. The practice is one we inherited from older industries–most of whom haven’t begun to move on yet.

As you can see, there’s a vast amount of analysis and discussion to be had about any one sliver of these areas. Munging them all together is intellectually ridiculous, and certainly does nothing to help figure out practical solutions. How about if people who seriously want to tackle these issues each pick one? One that interests them, or that they know something about, and start writing, researching, talking to people, thinking pragmatically? I know that with all the smarts and analytical capabilities we have in this industry, we can be as innovative about cultural challenges as technical ones if we put our minds to it.


PS. What is unique about the tech industry with regard to this whole topic? It’s the myth of “meritocracy”, which blinds people to the fact that the playing field isn’t perfectly level and causes some to let their egos get very wrapped up in insisting that it is. Let’s be honest. People in tech hire their friends, just like they do in every other industry (perhaps even more so, in the startup world). But if you convince yourself that the converse of hiring smart people you like is that the people you don’t naturally gel with are not smart or worth hiring—that’s a problem. One might even guess that’s THE problem.

3 comments on “First, Let’s Define the Problem

  1. If I may, there is also one more problem that – in my humble opinion – exacerbates all of the excellent ones you mention: the chilling effect due to closure of debate.

    I have watched, dismayed, as exchanges via social media (including, but not limited to, blogs, twitter, and other outlets) devolve into “if I think that you are even possibly disagreeing with me then you must be misogynist!” The notion that there cannot be more than one point of view, more than one position, is not just laughable but also counter-productive.

    Many of these “for women” panels at tech conferences rapidly devolve into wholesale misandry, not just because of what they say about men but because they do not allow dissent from these opinions – even from other women.

    As long as this chilling effect on stifling free-range debate occurs, none of those problems (regardless of how well-defined they are) will ever be properly addressed.

    • Your point is well taken, although my own frustration has more to do with the laziness of “reporting” and general handwavery that goes on with regard to this topic. As far as your comments are concerned: it may help to understand where the feeling comes from: for far too long, the starting position of many (even most, for a while) male commenters has been, in essence, “I don’t see it, therefore it obviously doesn’t exist.” If someone said to you, “Hey look, a plane!”, you might look around, and failing to spot it immediately, ask them to help you locate it. Unfortunately, “I don’t see it, but you do, so help me see what you’re seeing” hasn’t been a common starting point with this topic, and it shouldn’t be that hard to understand the frustration of someone arrogantly informing you, without even looking around, that the plane you (and lots of other people) see clearly simply doesn’t exist. I think that’s changed quite a bit in the last year, and it may be that slinging stats around, however indiscriminately, has helped open more eyes to basic reality. After all, both parties have to agree that the plane exists before they can start discussing its configuration. Given where we’ve been, however, there’s trust to be earned. We’re still far from being able to take it for granted that *everyone* who puts their two cents in has spotted the plane. Maybe we need coin a catchphrase to signal that we’re starting from the same place: “The cake is a lie, but the plane exists.”

      BTW, I also have a real problem with framing things as a “debate”–the term implies two diametrically opposing sides, competing to “win”. That frame of mind is, in fact, the very reason it’s hard to discuss these things honestly and reasonably: you can’t “win” without going on the offensive and attacking the other side’s points. That doesn’t help find solutions, and it inevitably creates a lot of nasty feelings all around. There shouldn’t be opposing sides. We’re all in this thing called life together. We have to learn how to live and work with each other comfortably and effectively. Discussion–as opposed to debate–allows a range of points of view and ideas to be exchanged between a multitude of individuals, and batted around within a group. Out of that, solutions and consensus can begin to arise.

      And yeah, I’m not a fan of “women in tech” panels either. I’m never sure who the audience is supposed to be. Usually it’s just other women, because men figure it’s not about them (at best), so it’s either an affirmational exercise or a b*tchfest, neither of which seems like a very productive use of time to me. I’m a lot more in favor of having women on non-segregated panels (or heck, even solo sessions!) talking about the cool tech they’re involved with…you know, just like men get to do.

  2. Re: Finding common ground. I couldn’t agree with you more, here. In any communication exchange where the goal is mutual understanding and moving forward to the next obstacle, being able to correctly identify and define terms (and starting points) is absolutely essential. To have someone refute that the plane exists – just because they couldn’t see it – is more than just frustrating. It’s insulting and the inference is clear: you don’t know what you’re talking about (or, worse, crying wolf, to mix the metaphors and bring it back to the discussion at hand).

    Re: Debate. You have an excellent point here, but unfortunately it seems to me that the industry has already moved past the point of a discussion. That was the crux of my earlier comment, in fact: there is a movement to “win at any cost,” even to the point of attempting to shut various groups (i.e, men) out of the conversation altogether. In fact, we’re at a point where if a woman’s definitions (see point 1) are asked to be clarified, the fangs emerge.

    To that end in which it occurs, then, you’re correct that this isn’t even a debate. It’s propaganda.

    Re: Panels. I don’t think that organizers of women’s panels realize how much damage can be done by having them. Their very existence nullifies their goal of ubiquity in the industry. Men do *not* have men-only panels for the sake of talking about men, so the argument that “most panels are Men Panels” holds no weight.

    This is not to say men don’t have issues or concerns that involve *being* men, which in turn leads many women in those panels to assume that such issues or concerns do not exist (aaaaaand, we’re back to the “where’s the plane” problem) and they hold a corner on the market on false expectations, mistreatment and/or unfair practices.

    The irony here is that this very behavior – that of negation – is the very reason why they want to hold these panels in the first place. As long as people are not permitted to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and – yes – contradict claims, the discussion can never happen in any meaningful way.

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