Women, IT & The Outrage Machine

Business is booming for pundits who get their clicks bemoaning the existential danger of gender imbalances in high tech. But guess what? It's irrational BS.

Tammie Colivariti, Senior IT Manager

February 20, 2014

7 Min Read

Vivek Wadwha, a fellow at Stanford's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, has made something of a cottage industry ginning up outrage over shoddy treatment of women in IT in general and in Silicon Valley in particular.

At first glance, the stats do seem alarming. Women are proportionally underrepresented in STEM programs. Girls aren't interested in computers. The Washington Post breathlessly cites a report from the Center for Talent Innovation that shows women working in these fields in the US are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within a year.

Quick, call the government regulators.

Or just calm down, because you know what they say about statistics: Torture them enough, and they'll tell you anything you want to hear.

More on the numbers in a moment. What's really stunning are the, shall we say, gratuitous mental leaps. Take this quote from Wadwha's Wall Street Journal blog from January: "Because there are few women in engineering, girls don't perceive computing to be a friendly profession, so fewer are entering the field."

How did Wadwha come up with that? Did he conduct a study? Did he actually ask a girl? Because the Girl Scouts did. In fact, the organization surveyed 852 US girls ages 14-17. The group was diversified with respect to geographical region, urbanicity, and racial/ethnic breakdown. Of those interested in STEM, just about 30% overall said issues often noted by the experts are a reason to avoid these careers. Even more interesting is that, if you look at the top career goals for girls interested in STEM, they don't align very well with how IT as a profession is promoted. After all, how often do you hear that IT helps people or makes the world a better place to live?

Maybe the problem isn't promoting IT as a place for women, but promoting it as a place where everyone can directly or indirectly have a positive impact on the world. But, hey, doing that would be difficult. It's easier to wring our hands.

Frankly, I'm tired of men purporting to understand the reasons women choose one field over another. And I'm just as exhausted by the "Oh, nos! We don't have enough women in high tech!" What's the appropriate ratio? Does it have to be 50%, or will 30% suffice? Maybe we should shoot for 80%? Why isn't Wadwha -- or anyone else I've read -- lamenting the low number of men in nursing or teaching or any other field that suffers from a gender imbalance? Or how women are underrepresented in construction, auto mechanics, or trash collection?

My theory: IT and engineering pay well. Practitioners and those who cater to them possess an alarming level of political correctness paired with a lot of disposable income. The troops in the hand-wringer brigade know on which side their organic, fair-trade $4 toast is buttered.

Maybe it's time to face the reality that many women, for a variety of reasons, aren't interested in high tech. Maybe it's the long hours, or the constant travel, or the fact that they'd rather go into life sciences, or that you have to live in the Valley or some other high-tech center to get ahead. I've met many excellent women in the IT trenches in the South and Midwest, and I'm guessing not a one of them wants to move to Santa Clara just to be counted among the top women in high tech.

In a WSJ blog post telling us how to fix the problem, Wadwha says all this is the fault of employers, not women. He quotes "diversity experts" such as Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, who says, "For example, job descriptions that are overloaded with long lists of required skills (which may or may not be needed on day one, and could be learned on the job) may cause women to not apply if they don't have each and every skill; men on the other hand will tend to apply if they have only a subset of the skills."

Holy logic leap, Batman. If men apply without having all the requirements, but women don't, why is that the fault of the HR wonk writing the listing? Isn't it really about how women evaluate a help-wanted ad? Isn't it their fault they don't choose to apply?

Then there are these pearls of advice: Interview at least one woman and one member of a minority for every open position. And don't forget to haul in some women to conduct the interview. Why? "A female candidate will recognize that the business values diversity if the interviewers are men and women, and she is more likely to join the company if offered a job," says Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute.

What if no women or minorities apply? Are we supposed to drag some in off the street? What if the women who are in a position to intelligently add to the interview process are, you know, working? Shall we just grab someone with breasts at random?

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Look, my biggest fear when entering this field is that I would end up the token woman. Biggest fear. I want to be respected because I'm that good, not because I happened to be born female. I spent the first eight years of my career in development surrounded by men, and by hiring teams full of men. I didn't give a rat's ass about diversity or how many women I'd work with. I cared about whether the job was interesting, paid well, and was going to further my career.

You want to attract smart, capable women? Make sure hiring decisions are based on merit, skill, and the ability to learn and work as part of a team. Treat all your people well. Oh, and don't be so quick to mock interview questions that may seem off the wall. I used to help interview developers. I asked what kind of music they like. You know why? Because I've never met a developer who listened to country music who was worth hiring. Arbitrary? Maybe. But we once took a chance on a country fan and lived to regret it. (I'll talk more on the topic of interviews in my next column.)

If young women aren't majoring in computer science, it's because they don't want to. Maybe they like medicine better. You want numbers? Here are some true facts courtesy of the National Science Foundation: "Women constituted the majority of graduate students in psychology (76%), medical/other life sciences (76%), biological sciences (57%), and social sciences (54%), and were close to half of graduate students in agricultural sciences (49%) and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (46%)." Maybe some women want to major in history, business, or Mandarin and learn to code on their own.

So before we spend lots of effort trying to fix the problem of gender imbalance in high tech, let's think about whether it matters, or whether the real answer has nothing to do with women and equality and everything to do with some distorted notion of social justice that is highly selective and apparently applies to only a subset of high-paying, high-profile careers.

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About the Author(s)

Tammie Colivariti

Senior IT Manager

The author, a senior IT manager at a Silicon Valley tech vendor, shares her experiences under the pseudonym Tammie Colivariti. She has spent decades in high tech, from development to security and infrastructure, and has never hesitated to tell it like it is, even when "it" is not what the masses want to hear. Her snarky outlook and argumentative nature are definitely reflected in her writing. Write to Tammie at [email protected].

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